The founders of AON3D started the company in 2015 with the goal of developing a competitively priced, filament-style 3D printer that would let customers produce parts from nonproprietary, high-performance thermoplastics. The Montreal startup—founded by a group of McGill University materials engineers—achieved its goal and since then has upgraded the printer’s design several times.
The latest iteration is the recently released AON-M2, which can build parts from nylon, polycarbonate, UltemTM, PEKK, PEEK, TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), and many other materials. It features a 120-degrees-C bed; an expansive 18- by 18- by 25-in. build envelope; dual, independent extruders; and it can be operated remotely without installing software.
Company Cofounder and CEO Kevin Han said the M2 fills a niche between desktop-style “prosumer” systems and industrial systems.
The Additive Report met with Han at Formnext 2019 in Frankfurt, Germany, where he spoke about AON3D’s beginnings, the decision to focus on high-performance polymers, and steps that will spur growth of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry.
Below is an edited excerpt of the conversation between Han and AR Editor-in-Chief Don Nelson.
Additive Report: You have a materials engineering degree. What made you decide to enter the AM arena?
Kevin Han: When I was nearing the end of my college days, 3D printing was really coming to its peak. And I just saw this opportunity to get into a really interesting, fast-growing industry that could have a really big impact on the world.
AR: What impact will 3D printing have on the manufacturing world?
Han: If you look at high-tech industries, there’s a software component to everything that is often characterized by the phrase “software is eating the world.” But people who think that sometimes forget that manufacturing is over a $13 trillion industry. It still drives the fiscal world, and 3D printing has a huge potential to disrupt a lot of things within the entire manufacturing sector—not just the actual production method itself but supply chains and how we design things.
AR: It’s been said that very few engineers in the world understand designing for AM because it requires a different way of thinking about design. What’s your take on that?
Han: I think that’s true, and that it’s going to take time for the world to really take full advantage of the design side of AM. It may require a new generation of designers and engineers to come into the market.
That being said, we are doing our best with the market as it is. We’re trying to provide customers an end-to-end, full-stack solution that includes services and consulting. Everything from material selection to design to support.
AR: What’s an example of the support you provide?
Han: A lot of customers don’t have the necessary expertise in-house to really understand what’s going on with a printing process and then control for it. They don’t want to have to become experts in 3D printing. We extract these process difficulties so that they can focus on their core competencies: designing great parts and finding customers and innovating products.
AR: Why is there so much growth in metal AM?
Han: Because the customer groups who are early adopters—like aerospace, defense, and biomedical—want cutting-edge performance. They’re willing to pay for it, and they’re willing to take a little bit of risk to make sure they’re leading the pack.
There’s a lot of the same growth in high-performance polymers and composite materials—carbon-fiber composites, glass-fiber composites, and some niche products. An example of the niche products is a tungsten-metal filament for radiation shielding for biomedical applications.
AR: Why did you chose to pursue plastic 3D printing instead of metal?
Han: Polymers are a more approachable technology. There are a lot of cost benefits to thermal-plastic extrusion versus metal powder. And I’m not just talking CapEx, but the lower, ongoing expense from thermoplastic materials, the availability of these materials, and their lower skill-set requirements to use.
There are also no facility requirements with plastic. With metal, you need a clean room and hazmat suits. There are no powders floating around with thermoplastics.
Another thing that really excites me about plastic is it’s such a flexible material class compared to metal. There’s almost an infinite number of material combinations that you can create.
If you look at the distinct grades of materials available for 3D printing today, there are under 1,000. But if you look at the world of commercially available plastics, there are more than 70,000. If you look at how plastics are being used in the rest of manufacturing, clearly there’s a need and a demand for really targeted, specific formulations for AM that solve very specific application challenges … like recyclability and the movement toward clean tech and green tech.
AR: Who uses AON3D’s products?
Han: Right now, we see a lot of first-time users, like an R&D group within a larger organization. They’re taking ideas from the rest of the organization and proving that this technology is going to work ... and determining what the final cost of using this technology would be to solve the problem at scale. As the technology starts to prove out, we’ll see more expansion of 3D printing to solve whatever problem the R&D group was initially trying to solve.
AR: Earlier you mentioned that the global manufacturing economy exceeds $13 trillion. AM constitutes a miniscule portion of that. What does the additive industry have to do to capture a larger piece of that pie?
Han: Additive technology has a lot of potential. If you’re an expert, or if you can afford the investment in terms of time, cost, and talent, you can do great things with this technology today. But the vast majority of companies out there don’t have that. So we have to make this technology into something that’s really easy to use and that provides results right away. That’s the short- to medium-term goal.
Then there are the long-term goals. We need to prove out some of these applications on a small scale, then scale up. Next, we need repeatability, reliability, and traceability—especially for highly regulated industries. We need new frameworks and new work flows for managing quality so that as we scale-up the volume and as 3D-printed parts start to be used for more-critical applications, users begin to trust it as a technology.
AR: What is AON3D doing to snag a bigger piece of that $13 trillion-plus pie?
Han: Expanding our product portfolio. We’re going to launch additional product lines. I can’t give too many details yet, but I’m talking five different form factors and different prices to meet different requirements. For example, someone who is doing biomedical implants, they’re not going to create anything larger than a toaster. Whereas if you’re printing tooling, you might need a build area that’s a meter in the X-Y direction.
Another is the software that we’re building that will allow us to onboard new materials much more quickly than we’re able to now. Our dream is to build this piece of software that has elements of—I hate using buzzwords—AI and machine learning. Different customers will be able to come to us with an application problem, and we’ll be able to formulate—possibly even create—a custom material suited for them by working with our materials partners.
Our software will be capable of characterizing and understanding what the process possibilities, the material properties, and the process relationships are so that the customer can start using a material in a matter of weeks instead of years, as is sometimes the case.