Founded in 2010 and established as a commercial entity in 2014, RAPLAS International (RAPLAS) is a relative newcomer to the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. Even so, the company has developed a range of hardware platforms based on a philosophy that additive tech can and should be more flexible.
I recently caught up with Martin Forth, chief executive officer (CEO) of RAPLAS. Martin’s longevity in the AM industry dates back considerably longer than the company he is now leading, to 1996 when he worked for 3D Systems until 2002; he subsequently spent 14 years fulfilling senior and executive roles at Envisiontec. After leaving Envisiontec in 2016, Martin told me the plan had been to take a break from additive, but that, it turns out was not to be.
He was first approached by RAPLAS in 2016. At this time, the company had ‘sold a few machines’ but they needed to take the company to the next level. ‘It was a solid technology platform and the team had some really good ideas, based on impressive R&D,’ he said. ‘But they were under-funded, under-resourced and under-marketed. I provided some recommendations, the primary one being investment.’
Getting investment in the real world takes time, but RAPLAS is now in a position to push harder, and that is exactly what Martin said the company is doing with its next-generation of production tools. At which point, we got into an in-depth discussion about that recurring theme of production.
Martin elaborated on his take, both in general and from the RAPLAS perspective: ‘This is where RAPLAS is focused—on industrial production applications. Currently we have [an SLA-based] resin production system and sand binder jetting processes on the market, and we will be adding powder bed fusion soon, with metal. And it’s not that there is not a market for prototyping machines out there, that’s still huge but there are so many decent machines available for prototyping applications and it is now, justifiably, a very competitive market. But production applications are where AM is not meeting its potential—and I don’t mean the narrow view of production that many in the AM sector currently have.’
Our discussion threw up some historical problems in this regard, notably that production applications demand consistent accuracy, at speed for large and small components, without incurring astronomical costs. Getting all of the factors right within this equation is rare with AM, because there has always been a trade-off between size and speed, and as a result, the price per part is all too often prohibitive for medium and high volumes.
This is the angle that RAPLAS has come in on, developing platforms that offer a bigger build area, with consistent accuracy over the entire bed and at increased speeds.
Martin continued: ‘We use the latest German technology, with reputable process controls (from Materialise), manufacturing is in Germany and Asia, and we promote open, low-cost materials; for instance, with the resin machines we can run quality resins that cost a third of the price of typical AM resin prices today. Not yet competitive with injection molding prices, but a step in the right direction.’
The philosophy behind the RAPLAS systems is a combined approach, so in the case of the SLA system, it is capable of printing large and small (down to the micro level) components at the same time, with the same precise levels of accuracy across the entire bed at increased speeds. Martin believes this makes it a viable proposition for production environments because it offers manufacturers true flexibility for building different parts without any downtime of the machine. This decreases the price per part significantly, he argued.
As a for instance, Martin highlighted the recent success of RAPLAS’s participation at formnext in Frankfurt: ‘It was a very busy show and while I was expecting a good response, it exceeded my expectations. The machine we had on the booth demonstrated our message so well—in terms of the quality, speed and price per part—that an automotive manufacturer based in Germany, on seeing it on the show floor, put a deposit down there and then. It was subsequently shipped and installed at his facility the weekend after the show closed and is now running. I’ve sold machines at shows before, but this was new to me.
‘The list price of the RAPLAS platform is 250,000 EUR (294,000 USD), so we’re not talking throw away change here, it was a capital investment for an industrial machine, but it is also a very competitive price compared with equivalent machines on the market, with the added USP of the RAPLAS approach—consistent quality at the right price per part at production speed. The thing is, when you can prove the machine does this, the price of the system becomes less relevant because the returns are greater.’
While the formnext sale was a telling anecdote for RAPLAS, Martin went on to say that one of the biggest markets the company has identified is the foundry industry in China: ‘It’s huge and we have many companies from this sector engaging with us right now.’
This is because the RAPLAS sand printing machine, which utilizes the binder jetting process with the same philosophy of achieving the right cost, speed and quality performance with an open materials approach is garnering attention too, albeit not globally, but in Asia.
Although, on the logistics side, Martin made some pertinent observations: ‘These [sand printing] machines are huge systems and the material throughput is necessarily high. Hundreds of tons of sand and molds are not easy or economical to ship and actually, the volumes become more of an issue than the price of the materials. For this reason, we recommend placing the machine(s) close to the foundries’ production lines as possible.
‘We really think we are approaching this differently from the traditional AM vendor model, which offers fixed solutions and often are not flexible for the user. Part of what we are doing at RAPLAS is thinking outside of the box, without past constraints and this will filter down through different industries.’
He provided an example: ‘Take the jewelry sector. 3D printing has made a huge impact in this sector, not as a comprehensive solution, but as part of the manufacturing solution. It eliminated one of the most tricky and time-consuming parts of the process [—namely hand carving and machining wax models—] and has proved to be an invaluable tool. AM can do the same for many other industries too, where it can be implemented at one or two pinch points of the production process. Specifically, where it makes sense, and this is the conversation we need to have with manufacturers to make it real for them. This notion that AM can solve production on its own is nonsense—it’s a really valuable part of the solution and when applied in the right way the savings can be massive.’
On metal, RAPLAS is due to unveil its metal platform next year and it is scheduled to be at the Rapid show in the US. Martin expanded: ‘I believe that [SLA] is still the gold standard though. Regardless of the headlines and the vast stands of the metal vendors at shows like formnext. Resin is still the most accepted additive process with big manufacturers.
‘Sand is becoming more accepted, and metal is still a few steps behind as it still needs more proving and costs are still high. We hope to have an impact here because a large percentage of the global metal manufacturing market is focused on aluminum and steel and that’s where we are going to focus too. It’s where the main production markets are and if we can once again demonstrate our comprehensive philosophy with this platform as with the resin and sand platforms, then manufacturers will soon see they have a capable alternative with sensible economics.’
As of today, RAPLAS has sold ~30 systems worldwide, with 20+ of them installed in multiple sectors, but this is just the beginning. Martin summed it up well: ‘The rate of change over the next 30 years with AM is going to be so much faster than the first 30 years. It’s going to be quite a ride.’