3DQue automated printer system competes with injection molding

Nov. 10, 2019
Mateo Pekic developed the technology at age 18, aiming to mass-produce plastic parts for less than the cost of injection molding.
Mateo Pekic, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who turns 19 in the middle of this month, co-founded 3DQue Systems Inc. with the goal of providing companies with 3-D printing hardware and software to mass produce plastic parts for less than the cost of injection molding.

In addition to co-founding the company, he developed its technology and holds the title of chief of innovation.

In May, the company launched two systems —a high-volume, production-on-demand printer called QPoD, along with QSuite, the software and automation package that drives QPoD.

The QSuite software automates 3-D printing and eliminates the costs associated with the human intervention normally required during the printing process. While it’s currently not packaged with other 3-D printers, QSuite has been designed with the goal of working with other fused-filament-fabrication and fused-deposition-modeling printers.

“Our system automates everything from uploading the file to picking up the part at the end of printing,” Pekic said. “You upload the files into our QSuite software, it’ll look at your network of printers, distribute the files to whatever printers are available, and schedule [the print jobs]. Then, a certain printer will receive a file as dictated by QSuite. It will start the print, and, once the print is finished, it will remove the printed object from that print surface, reset the print surface, and then that object will either fall into a collection system or onto a conveyor belt that might take it to some post-processing. Meanwhile, that printer will take the next object from the QSuite queue and start printing that.”

QPoD incorporates nine printers in a three-by-three array with a total footprint of 12 square feet. In a trial conducted in January, a QPoD unit was able to produce 2.7-gram parts at a rate equivalent to 100,000 parts per year.

When used together, QPoD and QSuite can automate the entire manufacturing process, including removing printed parts from the print bed and resetting the bed, Pekic said.

Bringing down the costs of 3-D printing so that it can compete with injection molding will require removing human intervention from the printing process, company CEO and co-founder Steph Sharp said.

“Some people, of course, have done that with robotics,” Sharp said. “But that’s a very expensive replacement for humans.”

Whenever a person touches a part during manufacturing, it drives up costs and cost-competitiveness declines significantly, she said.

That’s not a problem with 3DQue Systems’ setup, Pekic said.

“There’s no point in the process in which a human has to be involved anymore,” Pekic said. “You just queue up a whole bunch of jobs and say, ‘I need 500 of this part and 600 of that part.’ QSuite will look at what printers are available and distribute the parts among them. The printers will print and remove and print and remove.”

The system enables lights-out manufacturing. In addition, Pekic said the system can be used to produce parts on demand. For example, a manufacturer needing a certain number of parts per hour in a production line could use the QSuite package to produce the parts as required and avoid the costs associated with storing the parts until needed.

“The idea being that rather than producing a ton of parts, sticking them in inventory and then drawing from that inventory as your production requires, you would simply produce exactly to the production requirements, skipping that inventory step altogether,” Pekic said.

Pekic believes that, ultimately, the most efficient implementation of mass 3-D printing will be an in-house, just-in-time process that eliminates the need for inventory and associated costs.

While 3-D printing now can be cost-competitive with injection molding in some instances, Pekic believes the technologies will continue to coexist.

“At this current point in time, I believe 3-D printing can replace injection molding in a large amount of applications,” Pekic said. “However, I do think that both technologies will have to coexist in some fashion. In terms of economics, there are certain objects that injection molding will always be cheaper for than 3-D printing. But, conversely, there is an entire class of objects that are impossible to even produce by injection molding or other types of manufacturing that 3-D printing would enable you to do.”

For example, 3-D printing permits shapes that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with injection molding. It also excels at creating lightweight parts.

“With 3-D printing, you can actually control how dense an object is inside,” Pekic said.

Pekic was well-known in Vancouver as a whiz at 3-D printing since the age of 15, Sharp said.

“Mateo actually invented the core of this technology four years ago,” Sharp said. “He ultimately automated the entire process.”

While a student, Pekic had experience 3-D printing parts, but saw that printing took hours and parts had to be manually removed from a printer before the next print job could start. Fascinated by industrial automation, he began studying how to remove finished parts from his printer and start the next print job before he got home from school.

Last year, Mateo partnered with Sharp to form 3DQue Systems and begin marketing his technology.

In September, 3DQue Systems announced a QPoD installation at Mitsubishi Chemical Performance Polymers Inc. (MCPP) in Warren, Mich.; the company will test the unit’s performance with various polymer filaments.

MCPP is one of the world’s largest makers of polymer-based filaments, with a focus on high-performance materials for end-use parts. Its print lab focuses on tuning the hardware and software on various 3-D printers to give end-users the best results.

“We are very excited to be working with MCPP to test QPoD’s performance and compatibility with their wide range of materials,” Pekic said. “QPoD is a game-changer for materials and parts testing. It is 12 times to 40 times faster than batch production at costs that rival volume injection molding. This means faster innovation and the ability to scale production seamlessly.”

Bruce Geiselman, senior reporter

[email protected]

3DQue Systems Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia, 604-755-7162, https://3dque.com

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.