Making Inkjet Enabled High-Speed Sintering a Reality - A discussion with Xaar's Professor Neil Hopkinson

Professor Neil Hopkinson, Xaar

Professor Neil Hopkinson, Xaar

3D Printing is a much written about technology and for some time graced the front pages of technology and news media as the rising star of consumer technology. Soon, journalists proclaimed, we would all be 3D Printing in our homes. However, it eventually became accepted that the true value for 3D Printing is in industrial applications where it is deployed to create new value and possibilities. 3D Printing has been successfully used in prototyping for many years, but due to a lack of production speed, it hasn’t reached any kind of mainstream use within manufacturing plants. So, imagine what would happen if you had a technology for 3D printing which was both accurate enough and fast enough? Here we talk to Professor Neil Hopkinson of Xaar about their High-Speed Sintering technology that can make products for aircraft, consumer products or cars. And yes, it is fast and accurate.

So Neil, basically you were the innovator and developer of this technology, tell us how this came to be, from the beginning

I was a graduate in manufacturing engineering. During my studies, I discovered the prototyping potential of 3D Printing. And for my Ph.D. I looked at rapid prototyping for the production of injection moulding tools and through this process, it provided me with experience beyond prototyping into true manufacturing.  It was clear that rapid prototyping (aka 3D Printing) could make parts with shapes that traditional technologies could not match. 
For 3D Printing, initially, the production speed was woefully slow when compared with injection moulding. In contrast injection moulding was great for volume but had design restrictions. In order for 3D Printing to make a big difference (for example, using its ability to make complex parts to make parts lighter on a car), this difference will only become a reality once the technology becomes competitive on cost and value with incumbent processes such as injection moulding. 

In 2001 the UK government (EPSRC) funded a series of Centres for Innovative Manufacturing and fortunately, Loughborough University (where I worked) secured one of these centres.  We could all see then that Laser Sintering was excellent. The results it produced looked the best for production of parts, but still, it was generally only suitable for 100’s but not millions of parts, due to its slow speed. 

So I contemplated the question as to how you could scale this up to millions of parts.   I was walking along the Canal on the way to the gym and I had a lightbulb moment – the key was to take the laser out of laser sintering as the laser was a source of high equipment cost and low process speed.  Then, it struck me that if you used an inkjet printhead to print an infra-red absorbent ink and combined it with an infra-red lamp you could do the same thing as laser sintering but much cheaper and quicker. This would involve replacing the expensive and slow laser and optic system with a fast and cost–effective combination of inkjet and lamps instead. I called this process High Speed Sintering.  

When was this?

The lightbulb moment happened back in 2003. In 2004, through the University’s funding it was relatively easy for me to write a proposal and secure £50,000 for a research project looking into this and we did some basic tests. By mid-2005 I secured further funds, assembled a team and got the early machines working. As we proved the technology step by step we went through the process of retrofitting inkjet printheads on Laser Sintering machines. At this point, I contacted Xaar and other printhead manufacturers. I knew the printheads would need to work in a very hot environment with substrate temperatures up to 200 degrees centigrade – I asked a lot of printhead suppliers and they said their printheads could only operate in environments under 50 degrees centigrade. But Xaar said they would give it a try. And it worked pretty well pretty quickly, which was great. Then we set about licensing the technology.

In 2007 we got into some legal challenges and, frustratingly, the technology stood still from a commercial perspective for 4 years, which was frustrating.

At the same time, in order to expand the range of application of the technology, we set about trying different materials in the process but I found that securing academic funds became more of a challenge than before.  

Why did academic funding pose such a problem?

Securing academic funding is very competitive and can become very political; it was clear to me that my successes in developing a technology with such large potential sat uncomfortably with others who were, understandably, intent on securing the same funds that I was after.
These challenges are not uncommon and unfortunately for a few years, for non-technological reasons, the technology made little progress.   

Then in 2011, some of our legal barriers were lifted and we secured funding from Loughborough University to make a machine to demonstrate the technology to prospective licensees.  Loughborough University collaborated with AtomJet on the design and employed Xaar’s printheads in the machine.  My team at Loughborough University provided the process insight and AtomJet built the machine.  We called this machine “Little Blue”. We were confident we could make a good machine using our technical know-how and proved we could do it. 

That resulted in licenses being signed and this began to open up opportunities for me in the commercial sector. By 2015 I had got to the highest point I wanted to reach in academia as a Professor – and I wanted to move into industry for a fresh challenge and it was important that I continued to drive High Speed Sintering (HSS) forward. 

How has Xaar been involved?

Xaar had stepped up to the plate to support my research in the earliest days of HSS. However, it came as a complete surprise when Xaar came in with an offer for me to head up its new 3D business. As an inventor I want as many licensees as possible while Xaar as a company would like to see its printheads in as many 3D Printing machines as possible. I liked the fact that by coming to work with a company in the supply chain it aligned with my motivation as a technology inventor, and it was a natural fit to join Xaar. Doug Edwards who had just joined as CEO of Xaar in early 2015 could see the opportunities in 3D and wanted someone to lead a new 3D business within Xaar; it made a lot of sense for both of us.

Looking back had Xaar gone deeper into a 3D business earlier, it may have been too early, but with my joining in March 2016 I think the timing has been excellent.  Xaar has provided the ideal environment for taking HSS towards commercialisation.

Why do companies and academic institutes not support new ideas?

On the commercial side, companies will have their own priorities and these can change; I think HSS was the victim of some of this in the early days with companies looking to develop the technology and then, for non-technical reasons, pulling back.   

Similarly, on the academic side, there was competition for funding and this can lead to some “knives under the table”.   The fact is that I came across this technology when I was quite young. Had I been a bit more senior then perhaps I would have had more clout and been able to secure more development funding with less difficulty.  

There have been a lot of challenges along the way but all inventions experience some degree of challenge or pain along the way. I guess the challenges that HSS has faced have been more of a non-technical than technical nature.  

However, I did get the support of some bodies that really helped sustain the project. The EPSRC – (Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council) funding at Loughborough University was a key catalyst for our very early work and further down the line Innovate UK (the UK’s innovation agency) helped with more advanced development – but securing the funds to develop the technology was hard work. In particular Innovate UK funded a project called FACTUM while I was at the University of Sheffield; and it was during the FACTUM project that Xaar really saw the commercial potential of HSS technology. 

So this is a story of determination and perseverance which paid off! Please explain the commercial model?

We have two strands to our 3D business. 

The first strand is to get our printheads out there in as many 3D Printing machines as possible across the full range of inkjet enabled processes from small, large and industrial applications but with the main focus on industrial systems. Xaar printheads are designed for an industrial working environment and it makes sense to deploy them in this space in 3D. For example in 2D, for ceramics, Xaar’s printheads are employed in 24-hour manufacture and this is what we aim to do in 3D. The 3D Printing market has been dominated for use in prototyping to date. But I have always seen the real potential of 3D Printing within manufacturing, and with our experience and competences, Xaar is very well placed to help achieve this.

The second strand in 3D is to produce machines that will use HSS technology and solutions. We have a company-wide policy of expanding beyond printheads in carefully chosen verticals – a good example of this in 2D is our acquisition of EPS in the Direct-to-Shape printing space.   In 3D our focus on expanding beyond printheads is to create machines which will use HSS technology – this is based on our unique in-house capability and history with this technology. As part of our wider HSS solution we also provide consultancy, helping customers understand the quality and the price point that HSS technology can provide, and to what extent they should convert to HSS - or stick with current processes such as CNC machining or injection moulding.

Do you think that 3D Print has suffered generally from being overhyped?

Yes, probably. For a number of years, the notion of everyone owning a cheap 3D printer at home really captured the public’s imagination, but honestly it was never a reality. It was really overhyped. But now there is a far more mature understanding of the technology and industry growth that can be seen in many forms.  Take for example the AMUG (Additive Manufacturing User Group); when I first attended the AMUG (the NASLUG/SLSUG) meetings in the early 2000’s there were about 50 attendees.  In Chicago in March this year, AMUG was attended by 1600 people, including senior management from some big companies. At these events, the focus of the conversation is increasingly industrial 3D printing for part manufacture. This is where volumes will occur with production volumes and part quality beginning to match incumbent technologies such as CNC machining and injection moulding. I think HSS will become a standard way to make a small but significant range of everyday products.  In many cases, injection moulding will continue to be the right process for many customers, but HSS is set to displace a significant portion of the existing CNC machining and injection moulding markets.  

So is success all in the timing?

Maybe! Right now, the timing is right as Xaar itself is on a journey of ambitious growth. As a company, we are looking to double our revenue by 2020 and our strategy includes inorganic growth, for example, by acquiring EPS last year. Moving into 3D is part of this inorganic expansion. For a while, as an academic, I had been looking into setting up my own company to commercialise HSS, but coming into Xaar with the structure, heritage, and reputation in industrial 2D printing makes it easier for me to focus on the technology, as opposed to other distractions of running a business!

So yes, timing is right, but I guess this is down to a lot of hard work between 2004 and 2015 and the coming together with Xaar is a fruition of working hard to overcome a number of technical challenges and a number of non-technical hurdles.   

Right now in our 3D Printing team, we have a very talented and driven bunch of people. Everyone is excited by the potential of the technology to make this as big a business opportunity as we can.

Xaar is exhibiting at InPrint 2017 on 14-16 November on booth #514