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ATHENA Achieves Lights-Out Production

Posted on
Jul 08, 2024
Bryan Dugan
Bryan Dugan
Web Manager , FANUC America
Crx robot tending

Increasing customer orders prompted Athena 3D Manufacturing to automate its 3D printing production.

Athena 3D is a leading additive manufacturing service bureau located in Tempe, AZ, that prints parts on demand. As a technology-based service bureau, Athena runs multiple 3D printers at the same time to achieve higher production volumes to keep up with increasing customer orders.

Before automating, printers often completed jobs in the middle of the night, meaning the machines sat idle until the next morning when an operator changed the print bed to start the next job. Having as many as 16 printers to manually change over before starting another job is exponentially more time-consuming, impacting machine utilization and production deadlines.
 

With those challenges in mind, Athena reached out to Delta Technology, a FANUC Authorized System Integrator. Delta specializes in developing automation solutions for a wide range of industries. After evaluating the process together, Delta developed a turnkey system that features a FANUC CRX-10iA cobot to keep production running 24/7.

 

“After evaluating Athena’s process, we recognized an opportunity to use robotic automation to help them optimize the efficiency of their 3D printers and run lights-out,” said Paul Soucek, Director of Sales and Marketing/New Product Development, Delta Technology. “We selected the FANUC CRX-10iA/L cobot because it’s easy to deploy and use, works safely alongside people, and minimizes the need for technicians to interact with the printers.”

How the System Works

Printers run according to programmed specifications, and as jobs are completed (many times at 3:00 AM), the cobot removes the print bed, sets it on a storage rack, and places a clean print bed back into the printer. The Application Programming Interface (API) then communicates to the printer to start the next job.

The FANUC CRX cobot is equipped with Markforged Onyx end-effectors to handle the parts - some are reinforced with Kevlar for added rigidity.
 

“Markforged has really changed the industry with regards to what you can do with the parts,” said Jacob Moss, Vice President of Operations, Athena 3D. “Adding continuous strands of carbon fiber or any type of fiber reinforcement inside the part really makes the difference.”

According to Athena’s Operations Manager, Taylor Moore, some parts actually interact with the build plate. One example is a stylus that sets on the end-effector that acts like a finger. It can use the touch screen on the printer to tell it that the bed is clear.

Flexibility is a key advantage of the CRX cobot. This means that when Athena scales production by adding more printers or if a new printer is introduced to the market, it’s easy to modify the cobot’s end-effector to adapt quickly.

Lights Out Production and More!
 

“The automation assists us by creating a truly lights-out manufacturing environment where we can leave at 5:00 at night and come back the next day and have parts ready for us to process,” added Moore.

“It's made a huge difference in our operations as we're able to pump out almost twice as many parts,” added Moss. “We're looking at a 40% increase in the utilization of our technology – and that’s major.” 

Another benefit is that in addition to servicing the equipment, Athena’s technicians are now able to work on higher-level tasks such as quality control, maintaining other equipment, or managing advanced processes.

“3D Printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, and more companies are driven to improve customer response time, flexibility, and speed-to-market,” added Delta’s Soucek. “We’re excited to partner with Athena 3D and MarkForged to bring this turnkey solution to their customers. It’s a great feeling to be on the cutting edge by combining several advanced technologies that are certain to enhance U.S. manufacturing.”
 

Conclusion
 

2023 is set to be a year of record installations of additive manufacturing systems, and validation of applications continues in sectors with stringent regulatory criteria, such as healthcare and aerospace. (Source: 3D Printing Industry )
 

“In this day and age, we're so used to next-day or even same-day shipping, and our customers are no different. They want their products or prototypes turned around quickly,” said Moss. “Now, with the automated system, our customers are getting their parts on demand. This allows us to dedicate more time to customer support rather than back-end processing, and that’s much more valuable for us in the long run.”

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