Additive Manufacturing Software Information
Additive manufacturing software is a critical part of the additive manufacturing process. The process starts with a design that often utilizes CAD software to create a digital representation of the part. In some cases, the process may start with a 3-D scan. While the design and use of CAD software is a significant step, it is beyond the scope of the additive manufacturing process. Some CAD software is designed specifically for the additive manufacturing process and should be considered. Once a CAD design has been developed, this data must be processed into a form the printer recognizes. Before the interpretation of the CAD data can happen, it must be determined that the part is physically possible and is also capable of being printed on the desired printer. If the design is not printable, then software for fixing it may be used as well. After the design has been generated and checked, this needs to be converted into a language the machine understands. The most common file type is called gcode and the tool that does this conversion is usually called a slicer. After the slicer software is done, this is sent to the machine for manufacturing. In some cases, host software for the manufacturing machine is required and in other cases the machine can read the file directly. The machine also has software running on its own specialized hardware, which has various levels of functionality depending on the machine.
Other software that may also be used are a mesh maker, a repair tool and or editor, and a viewer to review the file before manufacturing. Software for other more specialized functions also exist.
At each of the stages in the design and development, various decisions need to be made. In an ideal situation, the design done in CAD is exactly what the end result will be. In many cases, this can be achieved, but often requires some additional accommodations that depend on the machine being used. Various considerations need to be made to manufacture a part. One common decision is about support material, some machines such as those with a powder bed do not require any support when printing as the powder provides the necessary support. Other machines such as FDM or SLA type will require support material as they can’t print in thin air. Many other decisions such as material type resolution and size will also need to be made before manufacturing.
CAD—Computer aided design software is an important part of the design aspect of additive manufacturing and is often the starting point. CAD software comes in many different forms with some of them being better suited for additive manufacturing. The basics of CAD start with drawing the design with specific dimensions and turning it into a 3-D model. CAD is a very useful engineering design tool and is often used where exact dimensions and tolerance is important.
Modeling and sculpting software—This software is based more around an artistic process, although it can be used with precise measurements. Modeling software takes its inspiration from an artistic process like sculpting to allow users to create a finished design. Often, precise measurements are not important as much as the finished look is, such as in designing a cartoon character or action figure.
Customizing software—This software is not always standalone software, although it sometimes can be used as an app or it may be part of a larger design package. Customizers allow you to take a design and easily customize an element of it. An example might be a customizer for jewelry where a user can modify the base design or add engraving to it.
Mesh software—A mesh is a grid of polygons put together in a mesh to make a larger more complex shape. This is a wireframe type design of a 3-D design. True curves are difficult to represent in a digital format so instead a number of small flat surfaces are used. The greater number of small flat areas, the closer to a true curve the design will be. Mesh software allows a user to edit, create, or otherwise utilize the mesh framework of a design. An example use might be to take a scan output in the form of a point cloud (a series of points that represent a shape) and utilize that to create a mesh type design.
Slicer software—This software originates from Stereolithography, although it is often used for any additive manufacturing machine that builds its part in layers. This applies to fused filament machines as well as Stereolithography. It could also apply to laser sintering and melting type machines as well as other types. The slicer takes a digital model and performs calculations on it. The calculations virtually slice the object into a number of layers that are turned into the necessary machine pathways needed to create that object. This information is outputted in a format that the machine can understand most often in gcode. The resulting output file is a list of movements for each motor and heater in the printer, this allows the printer to simply play the file without requiring much computing power. The slicer software also allows for some decisions in the print. One critical decision made at this stage is the resolution of the part. This determines how fine the layers are. This software will allow for supports to be added to the design if they are required. It may also allow for additional considerations like how the part is adhered to the printing surface. Other options may also be available such as reorienting the part or resizing it. The goal is to enable a user to find the best way to manufacture the part on the machine such that it matches the original design and meets the criteria.
Viewer software—Viewing software allows a user to virtually view the object to be printed. While the object can be viewed in CAD software, it may look slightly different after being prepared for printing. Viewing software will recreate what the part will look like based on the files being sent to the printer. This way, a user can see exactly what changes have been made, the supports added, or other changes various software made for printing. Viewing software is a way to verify what will be printed before it gets manufactured.
Checker—This is software that ensures your design is physically printable and doesn’t have any errors that will cause it to be unprintable or have an issue during printing. A common problem with scanned objects is to not have a closed shape. This often occurs if the scanner can’t see all sides of the object. In a design, all the surfaces must create a whole shape. Take for example a simple rectangular solid. In the design of this solid shape, the thickness is determined by the top and bottom wall of the rectangle. If one of those sides has a hole in it, then the shape is incomplete. This is different than having a shape like a hollow box, which is really made up of six thinner solid rectangular shapes. This problem may seem trivial in reality as it is impossible to have a hole that goes to nothing in a real-world shape. In a virtual design, it is something that needs to be verified before manufacturing. Software such as repair or checking software will handle this by looking for any open surfaces and offer to repair them.
Repair—This software often works with checker software to repair issues that would cause a print to be unprintable. Repair and checking software look for problems in a design that will cause it to be unprintable. Some shapes can be represented in a virtual environment that will not work in the physical one. Depending on how the design was created, it may not require this. Scanned parts will often have flaws that need to be repaired. Often, the repair is semi-automated so it can fix the issues with only a little interaction from the user.
Editor—This is software for editing the code being sent to the printer. Typically, the code has a format with commands for the motors and heaters. It is possible to understand and to make minor adjustments such as the temperature or speed by directly editing the code.
Conversion software—This software allows you to convert between various formats used in the additive manufacturing process. Examples might be a conversion between a mesh to an STL file. Other conversions may convert between different cad outputs such as an OBJ object file and STL.
Additive manufacturing machine firmware—This is machine specific software that runs on dedicated hardware that is specific to each machine. Many machines share similar hardware and can utilize the same firmware, which have settings that can be adjusted for each machine. The firmware of the machine can perform various functions but vary by machine. Some machine firmware can read a file directly and control the machine without the need of a host computer. Other machine firmware may require a direct connection to a host, while some machines can be controlled over a network interface.
Server—This allows a machine to be used on a network. Some server software may also allow for functions such as slicing and preview or incorporate other software into it. Server software allows for a machine to be run from a remote location or allows a machine to be used without a dedicated computer.