While few in the manufacturing world have denied that 3D printing is a fantastic production technology, many immediately point to its inability to mass produce lots of parts to emphasize that they’re not in danger at all. But will this always remain the case? While we’ve seen a few interesting 3D printing farms already, Dutch research institute TNO have now developed a very interesting machine that efficiently takes care of post-print processing on up to a hundred metal 3D printed parts simultaneously. Could this be the boost 3D printing technology needs?

Now as some of you might remember, TNO is well known for adopting high quality 3D printing innovations and specifically developing them for industrial commercial partners. TNO also has a 3D printing farm of their own. Their Equipment for Additive Manufacturing group (EFAM) is specialized in developing these very high precision 3D printing concepts, and have already successfully worked on machines for 3D printing integrated and flexible electronics, personalized medicine and food, solar cells and OLED lighting. In their own words, they are especially efficient in fields such as mechatronica, thermofluid engineering, system engineering, equipment development and more. As such, they have become an indispensable part of the industrial 3D printing landscape in the Netherlands and beyond it.

This brand new machine, called the Hyproline fits neatly within these development and has been designed to perfectly accommodate farm 3D printing. It has been developed with the Horizon 2020 project, with a commercial purpose. ‘By further developing the manufacturing process itself as well as by research and application work on materials, pre and post treatment of the parts produced and supporting software Hyproline adds capabilities to commercially available manufacturing systems, in terms of speed, product quality and versatility,’ its developers say.

While us mortals now have to clean all metal 3D prints by hand, the Hyproline can simultaneously clean and polish up to 100 parts in a single session. In a single day, this figure grows up to a 10,000 parts. A robot is continuously adding new pallets filled with parts, while removing finished prints from the machine, making this the most efficient polisher you’ve ever seen. The platform is essentially a carrousel with room for a hundred pallets, each containing a single item. The pallets themselves are also 3D printing in wax to correspond to the shape of the metal print in question.

As its project manager Frits Feenstra explained, TNO is even considering incorporating a 3D metal printer into the Hyproline to make this machine a factory in its own right. ‘The 3D printed parts are not dependent on each other’s production time with this machine. That ensures that this is a quick production line for 3D printing, ensuring that production costs will also be lower.’

Key in the Hyproline machine is a series of laser scanners, that compare the finished 3D prints with the 3D models used for them. A subsequent set of lasers then begins cleaning off excess material to ensure that the finished result corresponds perfectly to the 3D model. The entire process moves up to 1.5 meter per second. Should the initial result be insufficient, the part is sent for another round through the machine. The Hyproline is currently suitable for stainless steel and titanium parts, but TNO is looking into options for processing copper parts. ‘With copper, we are seeing a lot of challenges were laser processing is concerned, as it is such an efficient conductor. Thermic processing with a laser is thus very difficult, as the heat quickly ebbs away.’

The Hyproline project was recently finished, and is now in the commercial phase and can be expected to appear on the market in the near future. While thus not yet capable for 3D printing metal parts, this machine is very promising indeed. ‘We are currently only 3D printing plastic containers and small wax products,’ Feenstra says. ‘But we are working on another project in which we send powderbeds the size of a foot around in a carousell with an embedded 3D printer. That’s the real future, really 3D printing everything and processing it in a single continuously moving system.’