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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Stratasys Unveils Spin-off Focusing on New AM Technology

 
April 12th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe

This week, Stratasys officially unveiled the spin-off of its Selective Thermoplastic Electrophotographic Process (STEP) technology and forming of a new company, Evolve Additive Solutions.

After nearly 10 years as an incubation project, the new organization will be led by a dedicated management team, exclusively focused on bringing the proprietary STEP technology to market – aimed at delivering high-volume production additive manufacturing at breakthrough speeds compared to other commercially available additive processes.

Traditional manufacturers have long sought to combine the benefits of additive manufacturing with the material, quality and economics of traditional production processes. Built on Stratasys’ pioneering development and 3D printing and additive manufacturing expertise, Evolve’s STEP technology is aimed at producing parts at a cost, quality and throughput comparable to traditional manufacturing processes. The solution is intended for high-volume production runs into the hundreds of thousands per year. As such, it is expected to compete with traditional processes, such as injection molding.

For an overview of the STEP technology, click here.

“As an independent company, Evolve will best be able to focus on the advancement of the technology, provide the entrepreneurial environment and management equity incentives suitable for early stage efforts and drive the customer relationships and partnerships to foster further development and initial market adoption,” said Stratasys CEO, Ilan Levin. “As an equity stakeholder, we look forward to collaborating with Evolve and supporting this initiative to help make it a success.”

Designed for automated manufacturing and factory-floor integration, STEP empowers users to utilize production-grade thermoplastics for volume production applications across multiple industries. The scalable and extensible technology combines Evolve’s own proprietary technology with the proven capability of electrophotographic imaging.

“We are excited to introduce Evolve Additive Solutions and proprietary STEP technology,” said Steve Chillscyzn, CEO of Evolve Additive Solutions and co-inventor of STEP. “We believe the STEP technology is uniquely positioned to bridge the gap in the market not yet addressed by additive or traditional manufacturing technologies,” continued Chillscyzn. “It is the first-of-its-kind technology offering an additive method for mass production. It’s designed to deliver the benefits of additive, while handling high-volume production. And we’re confident in the Evolve team’s ability to make this technology a success.”

The STEP process combines 2D imaging technology with proprietary IP developed by Evolve to precisely align incoming layers and sophisticated bonding techniques that create final parts that are fully dense with isotropic properties of injection molding.

Specifically, STEP technology introduces a range of new features, including:

  • Engineering-grade thermoplastic materials (amorphous and semi-crystalline)
  • Production speeds of up to 50X faster than existing additive manufacturing solutions
  • Cost per part and surface quality comparable to traditional manufacturing
  • Isotropic properties in X, Y and Z directions on par with injection molding
  • Industry 4.0 and automation factory floor integration
  • Multiple material printing capable within the same layer
  • Full color printing capability – including spot and process

Evolve has already commenced seeking initial purchase orders from several leading automotive, consumer goods and aerospace companies during its alpha stage. Over the next 12 months, Evolve also plans to engage new customers to evaluate beta systems for applications in volume production environments across many vertical markets. Evolve has not yet announced the date of expected general availability of its products.

STEP Technology Provides 50x Faster 3D Printing for Production

3D printing is often called a disruptive technology, and many players in the industry are focused on bringing additive manufacturing into actual manufacturing, leveraging the benefits of this young, agile technology for production. Manufacturing represents a $12 trillion global industry, and additive manufacturing is poised to bring new capabilities alongside traditional techniques to create a new standard of faster, better scale production. To date, 3D printing has been held back from a larger impact on manufacturing due to several major factors — time, cost, and final part quality key among these. Today, a new technology emerges from stealth as a Stratasys spinoff Evolve Additive solutions is ready to introduce its completely new production-scale additive manufacturing solution to the market.

Born at Stratasys, STEP was built from its beginnings as a process targeted specifically at manufacturing. Bradshaw noted that the development project began when, in 2009, Chillscyzn and Scott Crump — the inventor of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology — sat down and asked a seemingly simple question: “If we made a system for manufacturing, what would it look like?”

As the brainstorming began, they sought input from many users of additive manufacturing and those in the business of scale manufacturing. The conclusion they reached was that there simply was not an additive manufacturing technology out there capable of production volumes and quality. And so, Bradshaw continued, the team “scoured the globe for technologies suited for manufacturing.

This search, he continued, sent Chillscyzn “on a journey of developing a technology we’re referring to as the first in 20 years that’s new to additive.” He was quick to point out that this designation was not intended to take anything away from other more recent entrants introducing unique 3D printing technologies to the market, but noted that STEP is completely unlike anything else available today, not a “takeoff from existing technologies.” Evolve set about with a mission — to introduce 3D printing for manufacturing — and built their system from the ground up, not revamping or rethinking other industrial technologies.

Check out the video about how STEP works by clicking here.

Focusing squarely on the needs for manufacturing, not prototyping, the team determined certain frames of cost, throughput, and mechanical properties as a starting point for their system to become competitive with injection molding. The examination period extended through 2016, studying feasibility and the science of how, why, and where the concept would work.

In the beginning of 2017, conversations with the board of Stratasys turned to how to continue to progress this new technology. Ultimately the decision was made, as investment and commercialization became a focus, to spin out Evolve into its own entity, separating STEP from the public company.

Pitting its speed for comparison against other additive manufacturing technologies is a helpful way for the growing 3D printing industry to understand just how novel this technology is — but that comparison isn’t the one Evolve Additive Solutions is really making. The comparison is truly intended to be with traditional manufacturing, bringing additive manufacturing into a whole new playing field through scale.

According to Evolve, there are five primary qualities that must be considered for a technology to be thought of as a “true manufacturing technology,” factors that “bubbled to the top with each company we talked to” in doing due diligence on market conditions during the feasibility study. “If you have three of them, that’s great, but is limited on the manufacturing side.” Covering all five is key, with categories that include:

Materials

  • Engineering-grade thermoplastics with isotropic properties. The Achilles heel often in AM is Z-direction; because of layer lines and processes, strength in Z-direction is limited. Evolve has isotropic properties in all three directions, key as a requirement for manufacturing.
  • Seeing as much as 50% of the build envelope dedicated to the building of support structures generates significant waste; with STEP, about 95% of support material is reusable.

Speed

  • Cycle times comparable to injection molding for low-volume runs, with the ability to get a finished part with minimal post-processing. The only requirement at that end is support removal; after removing supports, the product is finished.

Quality

  • Part performance on par with injection molding: “We are in that category, on par.”
  • Not on day one, but a future development will be a full spectrum of colors, bringing in CMYK to process color, “much like you would get in catalog printing on the 2D side.”
  • Multiple materials in a single build, such as a high-strength material and a soft material. An example of this would be an armrest, where the bulk of the build needs to be rigid, but the outer 10-15 layers or so require a softer touch.

Versatility

  • This scalable system was built from the ground up for manufacturing, and “needs to integrate from a hardware and software perspective,” functioning in as hands-free a method as possible and integrating into an existing production facility.
  • A future concept for the system takes its cue from injection molding in having “parts drop out of the end, out of the post-processing system to remove supports, into a bin, like injection molding does.”
  • On the software side, integration will be versatile as the Evolve Additive Solutions team envisions functionality for “someone progressive with the Internet of Things and the cloud” as well as someone using Oracle, Siemens NX, or other familiar software. “The thought is not having them have to run a completely different set of software; they should be able to use the machine and have it monitor things like progress and material usage the way they do today.”

Cost

  • For people to consider for manufacturing, cost has to be comparable with injection molding. Exact figures for the system and materials were not disclosed.

Unsurprisingly, for the innovative new technology, a good deal of the detail features into what Evolve refers to as the “secret sauce.” The top half of the machine is a 2D imagine engine, developed jointly by Kodak and Heidelberg, that the company is leveraging as a starting point, featuring customization in its electronics and hardware in a scalable system. Current system specs include a 24 x 13 x 6 inch build envelope, working with ABS and soluble support materials to 600 dpi dimensional accuracy. Minimum feature size is at a 42 micron voxel size, with layer height of .001 to .003 inches and a 22 micron particle size.

A case study with Vistatek points to a notable improvement in using STEP to create a 2,000 part run of an ABS bracket, comparing results to injection molding. Stats provided from Vistatek’s experience include:

Industrial Fiber Optic Manufacturer Injection Molding Stats

Mold Cost = $2,000

Time to Mold Creation: 2-8 weeks

Cycle time = 25 seconds per part

Cost Per Part = $2.64 (Part cost includes amortization of the mold)

Est. time to 2000 parts = 2-8 weeks

Evolve Stats

768 parts per build

3 hour build

Cycle time = 14 seconds per part

Cost Per part = $1.38

Est. time to 2000 parts = 1 day

This case study was a direct apples-to-apples comparison of exactly the same traditional part and geometry. Working with more complex parts that can take advantage of the benefits of topology optimization and other aspects viable through design for additive manufacture (DfAM) could quickly enhance the positioning of STEP’s additive manufacturing capabilities as compared to injection molding.

While quite a lot has happened since the idea’s origins in 2009, it’s all about looking ahead now for Evolve. As development accelerates, the company is now looking to align with companies that have similar goals, seeking beta partners in 2019, as well as looking for investors.

Ensuring that the manufacturing following “additive” takes center stage, Evolve Additive Solutions is well positioned to introduce STEP as a new innovative technology.

Viewing not other 3D printing companies, but injection molding and traditional manufacturing, as the competition — as the opportunity — Evolve is ready to take its place side-by-side with complementary technologies to push manufacturing into its next stages for thermoplastics.

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