A new dimension in metal 3D-printing
Additive manufacturing without any support structures, minimizing distortion and efficient - these characteristics can significantly improve metal 3D printing. The start-up AMSIS is creating the basis for this - and thus getting a hearing in additive manufacturing.
What is the cleverest way to mow a piece of lawn? Long paths, in circles or rather a zigzag pattern? A question that at first glance has little to do with 3D printing of metals, one would think.
However, anyone who is a little familiar with the complex devices knows that 3D printers, whether for plastic or metal, construct a product layer-by-layer in sheets. For example by applying molten plastic through a heated nozzle or by laser-smelting selectively metal powder in paths.
The shape of these paths - also called hatch vectors - can have an impact on the quality of the end product. "With our Genesis software, we change and optimize the properties of the material through a clever choice of these hatch vectors. This way, we manage to significantly reduce or even avoid previous issues in metal 3D printing such as thermal jams, distortion or strong internal stresses," explains Dr. Vasily Ploshikhin, professor at the University of Bremen and founder of the startup AMSIS.
A complex task. While in the garden at home, the mower only needs a handful of paths, 3D printing can quickly result in hundreds of thousands of hatch vectors that have to be optimized for each and every component.
Cost and time savings are possible in 3D printing
The software from Bremen can do even more, however: conventional metal 3D printers print overhangs or slopes only up to 45 degrees; for flatter angles, they have to rely on support structures that stabilize the component during the printing process. "Depending on the material, we are able to get down to 20 degrees. And where we do still need support structures, we can reduce their volume by up to 40 percent," says the professor.
The hatch vectors, calculated by the Genesis software, are based on extensive simulations. "We provide different hatching variants depending on the desired result. In this way, we allow for a high degree of adaptability, something that puts us ahead of others," explains the 3D printing expert.
Successful technology transfer
With AMSIS, Ploshikhin takes knowledge from the university into industry application. "I have never wanted to stay solely in theory. With the company, I can put myself and my ideas into practice," he explains.
Although Ploshikhin founded his first company with AMSIS, this is not entirely new territory for him. Prior to his university career, he worked in an industry-related research and development company, and even at university he has to fight to acquire and manage third-party funding for projects - sales and controlling in the broadest sense. "I felt ready to get something new and innovative up and running, and my previous experience of course helped me a lot. As a university professor, I wanted to be close to industrial practice and have always positioned myself between research and industry," he says of himself.
A lot has happened since the foundation in 2017. Thanks to the investments made, it is now possible to have twelve full- and part-time employees working on the development and sales of the Genesis software. In January 2022, the company moved into a large office in the building of the think-tank "Denkfabrik" in the Bremen Technology Park, right across the street from the Bremen 3D printing specialist BEGO and just a stone's throw away from leading institutes in materials science, such as IFAM and IWT.
"The immediate proximity to the university is perfect for the startup. Bremen is internationally known for its 3D printing expertise. Here we have a good infrastructure and therefore also potential users," he continues. Around a handful of customers are already working with the Bremen software. Selected parties with whom the ambitious AMSIS team is working together to make it ready for series production.
Metal 3D printing 3.0
In mid-2022, the innovative startup will take a significant step closer to its goal - if everything goes according to plan. "We will then release our version 3.0 with a new user interface and new functions. It should then be available for end customers," explains Ploshikhin, already looking forward to it. The update will also make it possible to simulate different hatch patterns for different components printed at the same time and to transmit this information to the 3D printer.
In addition, it will be possible to specifically incorporate errors into the print product. Why is that good? "Just about every metal 3D printing unit today has defects, small pores and air pockets. By selectively incorporating these defects, research departments can conduct reproducible studies to develop methods to avoid them."
For example, printers could learn to detect and correct errors in the component using artificial intelligence. This is a field of activity that AMSIS has also taken on - the software developers are currently working on using cameras and machine learning to teach the printing systems intelligence. "However, this still has a long way to go," admits Ploshikhin.
Successful interplay between science and industry
With his software, 3D printing innovator Ploshikhin, who first came to Bremen in 2009, thus also creates a transfer from industry back to research. His proximity to industry helps Ploshikhin identify promising directions for basic research based on today's challenges in the field of industrial 3D printing production. As a result, new basic research-oriented projects are designed and usually implemented jointly in cooperation between his professorship and the university's partner institutes, such as IFAM and IWT.
Such synergy between industry and research particularly benefits the university's young students. "I give my students the chance to work in the company or write their theses. In this way, I can attract bright minds to the company and at the same time keep them here in Bremen. In my opinion, this is very important for the development of Bremen as a 3D-printing hub," he continues.
Financed via the ERDF participation fund
Starthaus Bremen & Bremerhaven and BAB - the development bank - have also played a significant role in the successful establishment of the company. Through the financial instrument of the Bremen ERDF participation fund, BAB acquired shares in the young company and provided funding in return. "BAB is an important partner that is actively supporting us. The regular meetings are always helping us to move forward," says Ploshikhin, describing the positive outcome of the many years of cooperation.
Further support was provided through research projects within the framework of RDI funding. Ploshikhin: "The advisors at BAB have great technical expertise and immediately recognized the high degree of innovation. I don't think you find that everywhere."
In early 2021, a private investor, HZG Additive Manufacturing Tech Fund, founded by globally renowned German pioneers in metal additive manufacturing, Kerstin and Frank Herzog, also saw great potential in the GENESIS software and provided AMSIS with additional funding. For Ploshikhin, this proves that he is on the right track. "It is a challenge - especially the entrepreneurial part, when it comes to building a team, meeting customers' needs or finding investors. But it also brings me a lot of joy."