Anton Aulbers is Senior Project Manager for Additive Manufacturing Equipment at the AMSYSTEMS Center, a joint venture of TU/e HTSC and TNO in the field of equipment for additive manufacturing, that nestles at the fringe of the Eindhoven University of Technology campus where he is in the process of handing over the lead of the MultiM3D Fieldlab to his colleague, Frits Feenstra. Both were in from the start, with Aulbers co-writing the proposal to establish the MultiM3D as an umbrella for people to meet and connect and to facilitate a number of technology projects.
Trying out the technology
Feenstra, who is coordinating the ceramics activities, one of the three tracks currently providing the focus for the fieldlab’s technology development, explains how the fieldlab is set up. “We have different levels of membership within our umbrella. But they are all invited to attend the events and conferences we organize to promote the progress being made in the current tracks – dental applications, large-area ceramics, integrated electronics – as well as discuss the visions of where industry is heading and share ideas with each other. In essence, to explore the opportunities together.” This is one of the greatest values of a fieldlab, according to Aulbers. It’s a place where you can get hands-on with the very latest developments in technology to try out what these could mean in terms of products and services for the future. “In the arena of multi-material 3D printing, we provide a unique opportunity in the Netherlands for high-tech additive equipment manufacturers to experiment with techniques and materials, and push the technology forward.”
Funding is, of course, key to the continuity and continuation of the MultiM3D fieldlab, and the competition for funding is intense. The main sources of funding for the MultiM3D fieldlab are OP Zuid, the European Regional fund for the South of the Netherlands and the Province of Noord Brabant. Other sources include European framework projects and the occasional project co-funding from industrial partners, although this is often expressed in kind rather in cash. “Having started in the Brabant area with its very strong high-tech sector, we are looking at how we can take this largely regional ecosystem we have developed into a more national arena and beyond to other countries where our contact base is growing. Interest in what we are doing is increasing. We now have more than 55 partners and their interests vary from software to design and legislation. It’s a truly multidisciplinary initiative and where our umbrella is unable to cater for the interests of our partners, we connect them to other forums and platforms,” Feenstra says. “I see our umbrella as a place to meet and greet, to network and to cross-fertilize. As one of its kind, it is a precious resource that has added value to both established and emerging additive equipment manufacturers. We are seeing growing attendance at our events, and that is, to a large extent, down to the success of the networking aspect. People tell others about the fieldlab and so they become inquisitive, asking themselves what is happening and what it could mean to their business.”
“Since the fieldlab is a place in which the worlds of fundamental and applied research mix with industry, it is important,” Feenstra stresses, “that we listen well to the demands from industry and that industry feeds the research with specific ingredients. In that way not only can we respond to real requirements but also give rein to invention and innovation. Smart industry is rapidly becoming part and parcel of our daily lives, and here we can put our responses to demand for personalization to the test, from 3D printed dentures to printed pasta shapes.”
“Yes, the Barilla pasta printer,” explains Aulbers, “is not actually a product facilitated by the fieldlab but it was a forerunner. It started as a kind of Friday afternoon activity where we toyed with the idea of printing pasta after the company sowed the germ of the idea. But in view of the publicity it got, and the fact that it demonstrated how additive manufacturing could successfully transform an idea to a product, it did serve to attract interest in and partners to the fieldlab.”
A very tangible result of where the MultiM3D fieldlab did help to catalyze the transformation of a concept to product can be seen in the development of a denture whose appearance is ‘natural’. Océ-Technologies is working with TNO and NextDent to 3D print artificial colored teeth for dentures and crowns that will not only provide better-looking results but also significantly reduce the labor-intensive process involved in making dental prostheses. Feenstra explains. “To print natural-looking dentures, every voxel – that’s the 3D equivalent of a pixel – must be different in terms of color and transparency. It will soon be possible to print a complete tooth in less than 30 minutes and this is just the beginning. In the future, the biomedical applications of the technology could extend to printing skin or prostheses.” So far, the focus has been on developing the materials, hardware and software, but the first 3D dental objects are expected to be market ready by mid-2019.
“We are making progress in the field of multi-material 3D printing but there is still some way to go,” Aulbers adds. “We’re getting there but the market also has to get there. Is it ready to take on board the technological breakthroughs and innovations that we are helping to facilitate? And what I mean by that is not the willingness of companies to adopt new technologies but the logjam of legislation and regulations that can hinder the exploitation of the solutions. So in that sense, the fieldlab could alleviate this burden through sharing knowledge and experience. After all, we have accumulated a vast wealth of experience over the past decade or so and having the university quite literally on our doorstep, the fieldlab has access to the kind of knowledge and expertise that can help get the solutions to market more quickly. And for society to benefit faster.”
The AMSYSTEMS Center focuses predominantly on equipment, advanced systems that produce smart, personalized and multi-functional products, layer by layer. The mass-production of standardized products that typified industry in the 20th century, and still does predominantly, is starting to acknowledge that the ubiquity of information, desire for personalization and focus on sustainable and low-cost products is causing a paradigm manufacturing shift. The future of customized, on-demand and locally manufactured products is one of Additive Manufacturing (AM), and the AMSYSTEMS Center is keen to become the leading innovation center for advanced AM equipment. This joint innovation center between TNO and the High Tech Systems Center of Eindhoven University of Technology aims to accelerate (new ways of) additive manufacturing in a range of industries.