Five years ago, additive manufacturing was gaining popularity at such a fast pace that operators could hardly imagine all the challenges they were about to encounter while handling powders. At the same time, Granutools, a Belgian company debuted on the market with the goal of addressing “industrial needs for precise & repeatable measurement techniques.” The mission of the founders, Filip Francqui and Geoffroy Lumay, was therefore quite simple: fill the gap between expensive shear cell-related systems on the one hand, and manual devices on the other hand.
Surprisingly, this mission led the founders and their team to additive manufacturing. To find out how and what expertise they provide to the AM industry, we’ve invited the company in this Opinion of the Week series. Filip Francqui, Managing Director at Granutools, is our guest in this Opinion of the Week.
With over 20 years of experience in the field of precision instruments, Filip Francqui played pivotal roles in managing local and international markets for various equipment manufacturers. The physicist’s expertise covers the semiconductor, electronic microscopy and nanotechnology areas of activity. His interest in finding relevant applications for instruments has led him to raise awareness on the importance of powder characterization for AM. However, the Managing Director prides himself on having a team who is committed to understanding and addressing the specific needs of each customer.
What services does Granutools provide?
We manufacture advanced laboratory and industrial instruments to characterize granular materials behavior. The test methods are based on physical characteristics at the macroscopic scale. Our instruments help to achieve precise and repeatable measurement techniques for powders. We measure packing dynamics, flowability and electrostatics of powders.
We develop and commercialize a wide range of equipment for this purpose but we are also a dedicated team of experts for companies that are just looking for measurement services and personalized advice on both processes and materials.
What type of industries leverage your expertise?
Typically, any industry that might encounter troubles with powder handling, might call for our services. The additive manufacturing industry, the pharmaceutical industry as well as the consumer goods industry are the main sectors that we target.
How exactly did the company debut in the AM industry?
By accident, as professionals were looking for a passed/failed test for spreadability. They wanted to understand if the powder is spreading well or not. A 5-minute test enables to verify such spreadability and that is what we do. Once, we have determined the spreadability of the powder, it becomes much easier for the company to find a solution to overcome its challenge. Over time, we have gained specific expertise for the healthcare and medical industries where AM is a game changer.
How do you achieve such a test?
First, it should be noted that, for any powder-based manufacturing process, the measurement technique utilized to characterise the powder should be as close as possible to the process. This means that, one should be able to compare the stress state and flow field of the powder in both the measurement cell and the process.
Since our instruments are good proxys for AM process, we measure the cohesion of the powder at comparable speeds. Based on the results obtained from the sample test of the feedstock, we can determine whether or not, a specific material has the right properties to be processed by a 3D Printer.
Experience taught us that packing is also a key ingredient of a good 3D printing material as it can be related to the mechanical properties of the final part.
A non-homogeneous layer can cause cracks, density variation and poor surface finish. Therefore, a powder with low cohesion will be easier to spread, however, this powder may be less steady, layer after layer, hence the need to find a perfect balance between cohesion and packing dynamics.
One of the tools we’ve developed to optimize the AM workflow is an automated powder flowability measurement method based on the rotating drum principle. Named Granudrum, it assesses powder spreadability and takes into account the friction between the grains, the shape of the grains as well as the cohesive forces between the grains.
Is powder characterization only important for metal AM processes?
Powder properties are crucial to drive the adoption of AM in volume manufacturing, which means that powder characterization is a MUST for any high added-value manufacturing process. It’s also a MUST-used approach for any operator who is leveraging expensive materials or materials at scale. This approach can be adopted for any types of powder for AM: polymer, metal and ceramic. At Granutools, we’ve developed a number of measurement methods to meet all the needs in the industrial processing of powders and granular materials.
How important powder characterization is in an AM process?
Powder characterization enables the operator to keep control over his supply chain and product quality, not to mention that he can save time in development cycles of products that require new materials.
In the AM supply chain, the powder is used by the producer, thereafter by the 3D printer’s manufacturer, before being used by the customer (the one who will produce the part). Since an issue might occur at any stage of the supply chain, and of the printing process, it is crucial to verify the material spreadibility in order to know exactly where the issue would occur.
Powder characterization is currently under scrutiny at various standardization bodies to ensure good manufacturing practices. The awareness has risen over the last couple of years.
What’s next in the pipeline for Granutools?
We have further studied the environment’s impact on powder behavior. For example, we have analyzed powder behavior when the feedstock has absorbed humidity due to temperature variation or when the powder is heated prior to being spread in a thin layer. It was so exciting that we have been developing new instruments to address these purposes. In September, we will launch a new platform. Stay tuned!
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