3D Printing Drone Parts at Production Scale
The components of the Discovery 2 platform by Smartdrone are varied and include carbon fiber and machined aluminum components, but the external body is 3D printed using PA 12 – a lightweight yet highly durable material. “The PA 12 that we use for the outside shell is very impact resistant which is important on an industrial drone like this that is used in rugged environments and needs to be able to withstand bumps and bruises.”
Additive manufacturing allows the SmartDrone team to maintain an agile product development and production process. “We move very quickly in our design and design iterations so tooling something up like this would be very difficult to do with injection molding and the tooling cost at our low volume just makes zero sense,” says Chris McKulsky, SmartDrone’s Engineering Lead. “Plus with the additive we’re able to do more complex geometries and be very strategic about where we can drop weight which is extremely important – every 250 grams is about a minute of flight time. The thin, large surfaces would also likely have a lot of warping in injection molding.” Another benefit is that additive manufacturing enables complex internal ducting which can help funnel air to aid in thermal management during flight.
While additive was an obvious solution out of the gate – using an external service provider equipped with Multi Jet Fusion technology, McKulsky and the team at SmartDrone ultimately have a desire to scale up production more economically by bringing a higher throughput SLS printer in house.
A Growing Company Requires a Cutting Edge Technology
At a prior company, two co-founders of SmartDrone shared a building with Nexa3D in Southern California. McKulsky recalls tapping some of the engineers at Nexa3D to help him print some prototypes on their core technology printers which at the time were exclusively resin-based. Later that year, Nexa3D would acquire NXT Factory – the technology that would become the QLS 820 (short for Quantum Laser Sintering).
The teams kept in touch and by early 2022, as QLS was getting ready to come to market the teams joined forces in a beta program to get a better understanding of just how QLS stacked up against the likes of MJF tech they were already using.
What sets the QLS laser sintering 3D printer apart from other powder bed technologies is its unparalleled throughput. At 8 liters per hour, it is about 60% faster than MJF, plus it has an average build density of 20% compared to just 10% with MJF. Both of those numbers mean higher overall throughput, but QLS also has a bigger build volume, and quick swapping build units, further cementing the appeal of this cutting edge tech in the eyes of the SmartDrone team. “Looking at costs, the cost of a full assembly built on QLS is the cost of just one of the parts using MJF with our service provider,” says McKulsky.
A Traditional Family Business Growing with Cutting Edge Automation
Dowdle is not satisfied with the status quo – something he has learned over the years working with his father and uncle, “My goal as a businessman is to continue to grow and build out our laboratory for that growth. We’ve just hired five new technicians in the last month and are still looking for more. I will say, on the 3D side of things with the improved technology, I don’t need as many technicians as we used to for manual pours, but we do need qualified technicians as we grow.”
Speaking of finding good people, Dowdle points out another benefit of the digitization that is going on at Excel, “3D printing has made a very difficult hiring game a lot easier. Not a lot of people want to sit in the lab overnight pouring models for six hours, but the amount of people who would love to sit in front of a computer and play with the 3D software, there’s a lot more people who would be willing to do that. It definitely helps in terms of appealing to the next generation.”
3D printing is making waves throughout the dental and orthodontic industry, and Dowdle is quick to point out how rapidly that adoption is happening now, “20 years ago you really just had Invisalign using automated, digital processes, but they were a multi-million dollar company who could afford to invest in that. Nowadays, automation has come down to the level of a small business where people are not only willing and able to adopt it due to its affordability, but really need to adopt it to stay competitive.”