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The next step for industrial 3D printing: The New Apium P220
You are one of the founders of Apium Additive Technologies, how did you initially get the idea of founding a 3D printing business?
Prof. Okolo: The inspiration behind founding a 3D printing business came from my research activities. I’ve done a lot of work related to the interaction between materials and processing tools, and about eight years ago I got involved in 3D printing, but of metals. That was where the inspiration came, that if I had an opportunity to leave the classroom and do something in a business environment, this is probably a topic I could pursue.
What is the main business of Apium and why did you choose the Fused Filament Fabrication technology?
Prof. Okolo: What was central to Apium was materials, again because of my background. When you look at the field of 3D printing, you see that materials play a critical role. Material is what drives products, material is what drives processes and 3D printing being a relatively young manufacturing tool, we felt that we could achieve a lot more with new materials. That is why we decided to have PEEK as our first material. We chose the Fused Filament Fabrication 3D printing technology for two reasons: one from an investment point of view; it’s easier to invest in that. Second, from a knowledge point of view, you find more information related to this technology than any other technology for obvious reasons, polymers where the first that were ever 3D printed.
Resuming the last 3 years of Apium, what has been the most challenging thing in the beginning and what was your greatest success so far?
Prof. Okolo: Just like any other business the biggest challenge was investment cost and getting funding, to bring those ideas, have them developed in a lab and tested in a consumer environment, to the market. Having said that there have been successes. The biggest success we have is the people working with us here. The team is the biggest success we have. The fact that we are able to bring together dynamic minds, people willing to sacrifice. Often times I say the business environment is like a war zone, you need good soldiers to be able to win a battle and a strategy for the next battle.
Your current flagship printer is the Apium P155, but there is a new one, the Apium P220 developed by Apium and manufactured by Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG. What are the main differences compared to the Apium P155?
Prof. Okolo: There was a need to have a relatively bigger machine, for all kinds of reasons and size is a big difference. Secondly the mechanics you find on P220 are more superior than the ones on P155. It allows us to work for a longer time, it allows a print head travel with less obstruction. It brings higher reliability, also in terms of reproducibility of the parts that are printed out. The P220 will perform a lot better.
What was your intention in developing the Apium P220?
Prof. Okolo: The customers had a big influence in the development of the P220. We had a gentleman working here with us, Mr. Gopal, who did a lot of research and survey on what our potential customers would like to see in the printer and one of those was the size and of the busiest of that we decided to start designing a relatively bigger build volume machine.
In which industries and branches can the new printer be used? What kind of applications are possible?
Prof. Okolo: You need to keep in mind that 3D printing or additive manufacturing as you call it, is not a mass production tool, it really is not. It’s a mass customization tool. So, we'll be looking at industries where they need to have products that are not at the mass scale but at the small series scale, but also with a lot of design flexibility brought into it. The basis of that, key-industries are the medical sector, the aerospace sector and with large extend the R&D sector. These are sectors where you do not want to have a thousand parts fabricated, you want ten parts to do experimental work, change a design and going to the next experimental effort. That`s where our market segments are.
Apium is known for printing with PEEK, how important is the fact to control the crystallinity of PEEK?
Prof. Okolo: It is critical because the crystallinity is actually what makes PEEK unique. The crystalline phase is what gives PEEK its structural backbone, if you remove that it behaves like a commodity polymer. If we can control crystallinity, we can control the nominal strength of the printed part, especially the strength in the Z direction. Part of the efforts we are currently doing is to understand how the development of crystals occur, we need to be able to gain information about the data, at which temperature range can we reap the most crystalline domain within the material and how the amount of crystals influences the mechanical behaviour of the parts printed out. Our ability to control crystallinity is central to our processing strategy.
Which other high-performance polymers or materials can be processed using an Apium printer? Are you planning to develop more?
Prof. Okolo: Besides PEEK, we have PVDF it’s a fluoropolymer and it comes from the same family as Teflon, we also have a copolymer POM-C. We have ULTEM or PEI, it’s a polyamide. These polymers have very specific demands and needs and functions in industry. We picked these polymers because it’s a niche application zone. Together with that we know that there are new applications where modified materials could be used and we are pursuing in those applications. A typically example is in the development of 3D printed mould inserts. Polymers will be central to that, but because polymers are poor thermal conductors we know that we need to modify them to be able to meet those functional needs. We do see that in the near future, we will have new materials on our portfolio.
We have a certain activity running in printing metals, whereby we take advantage of what is already known in the so-called metal injection moulding field. Regarding our process, you have a metallic phase filled in a polymeric matrix, it is then shaped and debinded afterwards in such a way that you remove the polymeric phase trying to maintain the geometric composition of the moulded part, finally doing a sintering process. It’s not just printing, you also have other processes downstream that will get you to the finished part. It has been already demonstrated that it is possible to do this using our technology and we are pursuing this from the point of view that the technology we have, which is very specific to Apium, could be used to process these metallic filled polymers in a very unique way. We do see sometime in the near future that this product will be in our product portfolio as well.
What do you think are the benefits of choosing an Apium 3D printer over others?
Prof. Okolo: The printer is conceived with the materials science behind the process in it and you have to understand the role of material science to be able to have good processes. What makes our printers unique, is the fact that when materials are fed in to it, it treats materials just the way a professional would treat the material, so the professionalism behind our processing is what differentiates us from other competitors. And of course, not because I’m affiliated to Apium, my recommendation to people would be to buy an Apium printer rather than other 3D printers.
What are Apium’s goals for the next few years?
Prof. Okolo: Well, we see the medical sector as a new world and the reason why, is because the enquiries we receive from the public are more weighted in favour of the medical sector. There’s clearly a market that has to be conquered and we need to prepare ourselves for that battle. It’s a battleground where we don’t have entrance yet and the earlier we prepare and getting there and dominate and colonize that environment the better for us. I see Apium being more active in the medical sector in the future.
Do you have any additional things you want to tell the readers?
Prof. Okolo: One thing I want to say, it's about the 3D printing technology generally. It is a profoundly powerful technology, it brings benefits to industrialists, manufacturers and its role is very complimentary. It's not going to solve all of the industrial problems we have in manufacturing or in fabrication; industries need to appreciate that the role of 3D printing or additive manufacturing is complementary, this is my massage to the world.
Apium’s plans for the upcoming months are very clear, according to the points CTO Prof. Dr. Brando Okolo mentioned. The first step, developing and delivering the new Apium P220 high-performance materials 3D printer, with specifications tailored to customers need, is done. New materials will be added to their portfolio, 3D printing metals will exceed the limits of just printing polymers. New markets will be conquered with Apium’s activities in the medical sector. Apium stays as innovative in the next years as they started in the beginning with the Fused Filament Fabrication for high-performance polymers.
Biography: Prof. Dr. Brando Okolo worked as a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the German University in Cairo – Egypt. He was full-time employed for years as a lecturer and researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) in Germany, where he contributed in the development of rapid prototyping process chains within a German government funded program. He has published extensively on the structural integrity of components produced using rapid prototyping methods for the microsystems technologies sector and has supervised both graduate level and undergraduate level academic thesis students in the field of additive manufacturing. 3D Printing is his current research and development focus intent on pushing through advances in this field to the medical, automobile, aviation, education, electronics, entertainment and oil & gas industries. He brings along an expert level knowledge, skills and competence to issues related to 3D printing. In August 2014 he founded the company Apium Additive Technologies GmbH (former INDMATEC GmbH) together with his friend and business partner Tony Tran-Mai.
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