Jeroen van Hal
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Many people have a traditional inkjet or laser printer in their homes, to print '2D' texts and images on paper. In an extension to this, 3D-printers already show up in our homes, to make gadgets, jewellery and other products. 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular and nowadays large online platforms are being set up where open source designs are accessible to everyone, like Pinshape. 3D-printing, also known as additive manufacturing is a novel production technique where 'real 3-dimensional' products are built layer by layer, made from scratch. This is the opposite of traditional machining operations such as drilling, milling or cutting, where pieces of material are removed to yield the product.

3D printing as ‘rapid prototyping’

3D printing today is often associated with a process called ‘rapid prototyping’ – which is used by research and development (R&D) teams to create a physical representation of a new invention (prototype) so that it can be tested and validated.

On a professional level, 3D-printing is already becoming a popular solution to manufacture products in small series, fast and custom-made. 3D-printing of polymers and metals already occurs on an advanced scale, alongside this 3D-printing of ceramics is rising.

3D-printing at Bronkhorst

3D-printers are very useful within the production environment. This is demonstrated by their use here at Bronkhorst - for product as well as process development. It really has become a new and very accessible way of manufacturing.

We use several 3D-printers mainly for visualisation purposes - 'the rapid prototyping way' - and to print useful tooling to facilitate the production of mass flow controllers and meters. Prior to using 3D-printing, a prototype of a component had to be manufactured at an external tool shop, which took some time - and investment - before it was ready. The use of 3D-printing has allowed us to increase our productivity: it is much faster to print a component or a tool ourselves.

Within a few hours, we can evaluate the design of a component: will it really work in the way we expected it, does it really fit? Moreover, for small quantities, no investment is required for manufacturing a mould.

In addition to its speed, 3D-printing has some convincing advantages. It is much more powerful to deal with a real component - a plastic model, with some real look & feel - than a 3D-rendered image which may look fantastic but isn't in real life. In addition, the communication between R&D, engineering and production works that much better having a component in your hand to talk about. Which are the key problems we will encounter, what can be the risks of a new design? In the R&D department, 3D-printing is mainly used to test the functionality of a design. The engineering department goes one step beyond, in making the design feasible and realisable.

3D printer Kaak

3D printer Kaak

Cooperation with external partners

K3D, part of Kaak Group in Terborg, acquired the first real industrial 3D-printer for metal. Since September 2016, the printer is fully operational. The MetalFab1 machine is based on selective laser melting (SLM), a 3D-printing technique where a layer of metal powder is deposited, after which a part of these powder particles is selectively melted together by means of laser heat. It is the first local step in real production of metal parts with a 3D-printer.

Want to learn more about Mass Flow Controllers in 3D-printers? Read the blog of Jens Kiene about how a MASS-STREAM mass flow controller is used for selective laser melting.

Kaak approached seven companies in the region to experiment with the 3D-technique together, with the aim to turn the eastern part of the Netherlands into a 'print valley'. Each week, Bronkhorst has access to the printer for several hours. Bronkhorst is constantly looking for possibilities to improve the production process of flow meters, e .g. whether it’s possible to integrate more functions in the modules without interfering with the modular design. Moreover, local educational institutes are invited to get access to the machine, in order for their students to become acquainted with this technology.

Mass flow controllers for 3D-printers

Besides the fact that we use 3D-printing for our own product and process development, it also goes the other way around: mass flow controllers are used inside 3D-printers for metals. In selective laser melting, it is essential to have an inert gas atmosphere around the to-be-melted metal powder particles inside the 3D-printer, to prevent the metal from oxidation during the laser melting with oxygen from the surrounding air. To that end, an inert shielding gas has to be applied: argon gas for steel and titanium, and nitrogen gas for aluminium. Bronkhorst helps 3D-printer manufacturers with a system that generates and controls the flows of these inert shielding gases.

3D-printing is a way of additive manufacturing, a novel production technique essential for Bronkhorst to keep up with all new trends in the market for product- as well as process development.

Read more about this application using 3D-printing of metal products.

Check out the mass flow controller MASS-STREAM D-6300 that is used for 3D-printing

Watch the video

Dr. Jens Rother
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It is real common nowadays to use 3D printing techniques as process optimization in industrial production evironments. In our Bronkhorst premises in Ruurlo we also use 3D-printers for our own product and process development. 3D-Printers are indispensible within our production environment, it has brought us a new and very accessible and flexible way of manufacturing.

Within a few hours, we can evaluate the design of a component: will it really work in the way we expected it, does it really fit? You can read all about our experiences here in our blog ‘Product & process optimization by use of 3D printers’

But it also goes the other way around. Not only do we use 3D printers in the production proces of flow meters, but these flow meters and flow controllers are also used inside 3D-printers as well.

In this blog I would like to share an application with you explaining how mass flow meters are used in the 3D printing machines of one of our German customers in the machine building industry.

Selective laser melting (SLD)

3D-printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technique where products are made by building a product layer by layer. This is the opposite of machining operations such as drilling or milling, where pieces of materials are removed to yield the product.

Selective laser melting (SLM) is a 3D-printing technique where a layer of powder is deposited, after which a part of these powder particles is selectively melted together by means of laser heat.

The customer is a machine builder who makes 3D-printing machines that print metal parts out of steel, aluminium or titanium powder using this selective laser melting technique. Their customers are in the fields of aerospace, automotive and medicine & dental. High purity inert gases are necessary around the metal powder bed within the 3D-printer.

Example 3D Dental SLM

Application requirements

It is essential to have a gas atmosphere around the to-be-melted metal powder particles that is oxygen-free, to prevent the metal from oxidation during the laser melting. To that end, an inert shielding gas has to be applied: argon gas for steel and titanium, and nitrogen gas for alumium.

Flow solution with MASS-STREAM mass flow controller

For the end user of SLM's 3D-printing machine, there are two ways to establish a nitrogen atmosphere: either from the in-house nitrogen supply mains - if present - or from a nitrogen generator, which is an accessory to the 3D-printer. In the latter option, Bronkhorst becomes involved.

Flow scheme

Pressurised air from a compressed air supply or a compressor is supplied to the nitrogen generator, and its molecular sieve separates the air flow into two flows. Constituents such as oxygen, water vapour and argon are removed, and nitrogen with high purity (grade 5.0) remains.

Downstream of the generator, a mass flow controller (using direct through-flow measurement technique) is installed to control the nitrogen flow to the 3D-printer. This controller works in two operating modes.

Prior to the printing process, the 3D-printer has to be flushed, in order to establish the shielding gas atmosphere. To this end a high nitrogen flow of 60 to 90 liters per minute is necessary. Next, during the printing process itself, a small nitrogen flow of 3 to 10 liters per minute has to be supplied, for refreshing purposes and to compensate for leakage.

Read more about this application using 3D-printing of metal products

Check out the mass flow controller (MASS-STREAM™ D-6300 ) used in this application

James Walton
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This week I felt it would be good to reflect upon some of the blogs that we have put out into the world and share with you some of our most successful work. I cannot define exactly what has made a blog successful but if you have an idea of you would like to see then please let me know.

Below are 5 of our blogs from this year, we look forward to working with you in 2017.

Nils Kupper talks about optimisation of 3D printers

Henk Wassink discusses our work with Machine Builders

Marcel Katerberg on our work to improve Infusion pump calibration techniques

Ric Besseling on the difference between bubbler and Vapour generation systems

Finally, our top 10 tips for installing Mass Flow Meters and Controllers

Happy New Year.

James