Desktop manufacturing

Recently I caught up with Eric Pallarés Garcia, chief technology officer for the Spanish 3D printer vendor BCN3D, and discussed the company’s approach to the Fused Filament Fabrication market.

Eric Pallarés, CTO of BCN3D.

The FFF method is one of the oldest types of 3D printing and involves feeding a filament of a thermoplastic material to an extruder head, where it’s heated and then deposited as part of an object layer. It’s a simple approach and most FFF printers tend to be cheap desktop devices though BCN3D is one of several vendors using this technology for more industrial applications. Pallarés says the company is committed to the FFF method, explaining: “This is our core technology and this is what we are doing with all the effort. Of course, we are a technology-based company and we are aware of other technologies and we are doing our research but FFF for us is the way to continue.”

He adds: “We want to enable innovators to change how things are made and how the world is built but instead of doing it by targeting super high end applications with super expensive equipment, we always try to bring the technology from an affordable solution.”

BCN3D was only formally set up as an independent company in March 2019. But its roots go a little deeper, having originally started in 2011 as a small research group within the CIM-UPC technology centre, part of the additive manufacturing division of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia or UPC. Pallarés explains: “That technology centre was specialised on providing rapid prototyping services to the industry here in Catalonia where we have quite a strong automotive industry. So in the technology centre we have some experience working with industrial partners and customers that were asking for silicone molds, SLA and SLS prototypes. And then we discovered that there was an open research project called REP RAP so we started working with that and we attracted a lot of attention from those customers that were visiting the technology centre facilities.”

Initially the group focussed on the DIY maker market but competition from cheaper Chinese models forced them to rethink this. Pallarés says: “We understood that our value was not in providing cheap kits but on providing solutions and support for industrial partners so that’s why we developed the Sigma back in 2015.”

The Sigma series has since been through several iterations. The current Sigma D25 is a small desktop printer, currently available for €3,495. It has a build volume of 420 x 300 x 200mm with a heated bed using a silicone pad. 

He continues: “In 2019 the project made no sense inside the technology centre. We were 35 people, we wanted to invest more money to develop new projects and that was not sustainable inside a non-profitable technology organisation like that.” So the company was spun off in 2019, picking up $3 million in seed funding to create the sales marketing structures and to bring in more engineers and continue developing the printer technology.

BCN3D concentrates on FFF printers such as this Sigma D25.

At the end of 2019, the company announced a new printer, the Epsilon, which builds on the Sigma but is designed to take on more industrial applications. The main advantage of the Epsilon is its enclosed and heated build chamber, which is becoming a hallmark of FFF printers targeting more industrial applications. Pallarés explains: “To have that enclosed build chamber to be able to print with a building environment of around 60ºC, that’s super important in order to be able to succeed with technical materials like ABS. Also we have a huge printing volume, so we are able to print quite big parts, efficiently thanks to that enclosed chamber and the controlled materials.”

The original Epsilon model was replaced by two new models in 2020. The Epsilon W27 costs 4,995 and has the same build size as the Sigma D25 at 420 x 300 x 200mm. There’s also a bigger version, the Epsilon W50, with a build chamber of 420 x 300 x 400mm and costing 6,995. earlier this year the company introduced a smart cabinet option for both Epsilon’s for storing the materials at the optimum temperature and humidity for a further €2000. Pallarés explains: “With this cabinet we are giving extra control to the printing process by ensuring the the filaments are stored in a humidity-controlled environment which is super important if you want to print with polyamide, for example, or with BVOH or BBA or TPUs which are all very hydroscopic materials.”

Without a doubt, the main feature of the BCN3D printers is their dual extrusion or Idex technology, as Pallarés notes: “This is clearly providing us the capability to have a very productive platform for low volume production or even to combine materials or to use support materials more efficiently. I think that it’s quite proven that having an Idex extruder is providing more versatility and reliability when combining materials.”

This BCN3D Epsilon printer features two extruders as shown here.

Essentially the Idex technology uses two independent extruders, which offers a number of options. Thus one extruder could lay down the build material with the other used a support material – though not a second build material, as Pallarés explains: “Combining materials is not very common. When we first released the Idex architecture we thought that it would be more important but we are still not there. We need to make the combination of materials a more reliable process in order to have a real application in the end-use parts. So using supports is quite common at the moment, especially for jigs and fixtures and for prototyping rather than end-use parts. The capability to have complex geometries and to put the final part in water and forget about the elimination of the support structures is very convenient for our customers.”

Of course, since the two extruders operate independently, they can also be loaded with the same build material in order to print several parts side by side, greatly improving on the overall productivity of these devices. 

BCN3D has an open filament system so that users can work with third party materials but the company has also worked with BASF and Mitsubishi chemicals to offer its own branded materials. Pallarés notes: “Some of the customers, want a closed solution, an easy solution, they don’t want to spend time testing on trial and error so a validated material with working printing profiles is very convenient for most of our customers.”

BCN3D has developed a Smart Cabinet to store filaments at the correct temperature and humidity.

He adds: “In most cases it shouldn’t be a problem to use ABS from BASF or ABS from Polymaker – it’s not a big deal – but sometimes there is a need to finetune the printing profile in order to get a perfect result. The feedback we receive from those cases is very valuable for us because it allows us to improve and to have the right product support, and for more materials. Sometimes our customers are testing exotic or not very common filaments which leads us to realise there’s an opportunity there so we start doing some research or some general testing.” He adds: “We are always looking for more solutions, to provide a specific material for maybe a niche application but with high added value.”

Pallarés acknowledges that PLA is the most common material, but notes: “So PLA is the easiest and cheapest one but we are embracing other materials for end-use parts and we also want our customers to experiment or to feel comfortable with using other materials. So we see many people using ABS, which is an old material in the industry, and there’s an increasing interest in flexible materials, fibre-filled materials like polyamide with carbon fibre, PPE with polypropylene with glass fibre – these are not the most common used materials but they are increasing.”

Manufacturing applications

Naturally BCN has targeted prototyping applications but Pallarés says that the market is now shifting towards manufacturing, explaining: “Even with filament printers we are seeing an increased interest on the manufacturing applications, to get final end-use parts, not only for unique designs, but even for serialised products. We are providing the printing solution, which is printing simultaneously with both tool heads which can get twice the production compared to the regular filament printing process so in the time that you print two parts, other printers just print one, and we received the data of what our customers are printing, and one out of four are using it for duplication mode, so many of our customers are trying to get more parts per minute, or per hour, thanks to that feature. So we are seeing clearly a shift towards productivity and end-use parts.” 

He says that there is also a lot of interest in printing jigs and fixtures, noting: “FFF is providing the capability to print in short time, helping to produce more efficiently at a fraction of the cost and the time that many assembly lines or manufacturing companies are used to do. So depending on the application of the jigs or fixtures we see, for example, the usage of TPU for parts or for jigs that will be in contact with the part that is being assembled, in order to prevent scratches. We see the usage of very rigid materials like carbon fibre reinforced materials to make sure that when you place a part and you apply some pressure or you are using it under hot conditions, that jig is not losing its form. And maybe for more simple assembly operations, our customers are using maybe just PLA or the tough PLA that we just released which are simple materials to print with and super cheap but they do the work.”

The main software supplied is BCN3D Cura, based on the standard Cura but modified to include BCN3D features such as the Idex architecture and to connect the printers to the BCN3D Cloud. Pallarés explains: “The BCN3D Cloud is the platform that provides full access to the ecosystem wherever you are in the world – you can access the 3D printers and manage your print farm on the Internet and share your interests with other colleagues. We believe that in the coming years the cloud will be the centre of our 4.0 revolution and that things are getting connected. Printer manufacturers are not alone. We will collaborate with other companies that are providing services to the industry like ERPs, simulations and IP protection, and all that flow of information is going through the cloud. So we are very sure that the cloud will be more important for BCN3D in the coming years.”

BCN has seen an increased interest in networking printers together. Pallarés says: “Many of our customers have just one or two printers but we are seeing more people interested in installing printing farms of several printers in order to have the capability to be flexible and to satisfy the demand for low volume of end-use parts. We are providing end-use parts for our printers for the last six or seven years and it works. You can put a plastic part into a filament printer and it provides a good solution for low volume applications. So as the market is growing and maturing, for some kind of components, people are starting to use our products to have a small farm and to produce serialised products as well. This is still quite small, it’s not common but we are seeing an increase in that application.” For now it is up to the person running a print farm to balance the load between devices, but Pallares says that BCN is working on this “because we see that the industry will go that way.”

BCN3D has developed a number of FFF printers of different sizes.

Since the printers are connected to the Cloud, BCN3D is able to collect feedback on the performance of the printers, which it uses to improve their overall reliability. Pallarés says that the company is mostly concentrating its research to improve its print consistency over time.

He adds: “Our customers, of course, always want to go faster, which is one of the main limitations of FFF technology in general but I would say that our customers, or at least the customers that are using FFF technology on the professional desktop and work bench segment of the market, they are demanding reliability and consistency of the final parts. So, for example, five years ago people assumed that if you tried to print a job 10 times, then it would fail for half of those times but people won’t accept that now. They are accepting that depending on the geometry of the part, or how you place it in the build platform, it changes how it looks at the end. They accept that but they are getting strict and want consistency no matter the batch of the material or which printer, they want to get the exact same result with all the printers every time. So this is something that we are doing to have control of the printing process, and ensure that the conditions are optimal to get perfect results and this I think will be one of the key aspects for the coming years to ensure this consistency.”

Pallarés says that one positive result of the various lockdowns that most regions have experienced is that more people now see the potential of 3D printing, noting: “People understand now, people outside of the industry are aware that additive manufacturing can solve real world problems and can lead companies to be more competitive in a very centralised world where everything is being manufactured in Asia, to bring back the capability for countries to be self sustaining in terms of manufacturing. Of course this is a long journey but I think that in terms of perspective, the way that people see 3D printing has been positive.”

In the meantime, you can find more information on this company from bcn3d.com


…with a little help from my friends

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