TRACE: Traceability In 3D Printing
As 3D printing continues to industrialize, quality management and traceability are increasingly in focus — and that’s just what TRACE software offers.
I caught up with Mike Vasquez, PhD, CEO and Founder, for a chat about the need for more industrial solutions in production additive manufacturing.
Vasquez has a background as a materials engineer, developing his own interest in additive manufacturing in the early 2000s when he worked on some projects during his time at MIT earning his BS and M.Eng. degrees in Materials Science and Engineering.
“I thought it was an interesting mix of science-based questions,” he said of his initial attraction to the technology. “There was no shortage of materials issues in the space — even today. What really excites me is a new technology in a space that had been somewhat rigid in its thinking.”
Manufacturing, famously a relatively risk-averse industry, has been slow to warm up to 3D printing for production. Adoption is rising along with technological achievements, but it’s still slow going as these new-kid-on-the-block offerings prove their validity.
Following work on the sports side, including projects with New Balance, Vasquez heard about Loughborough University in the UK that had a fully developed additive manufacturing group — so it was to England he went to attain his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in the Additive Manufacturing Research Group. Some of the work he participated in turned into a company, Xaar, that has since continued in intriguing 3D printing developments.
“I really just enjoyed the technology, and developing new materials for powder-based systems. I thought, this seems like a growing market, especially for someone coming out of school — I’ll see where it goes. I started to look for jobs; I wanted to come back to the US after that,” he continued. “I wasn’t really finding anything that was exciting for me. I wanted to continue to do more in the space of the strategy side, and how you actually implement solutions, not just work in the materials space. I had a lot of offers to do research in materials, and I still do that — but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do full-time. I decided: why not take the plunge and see if there was room in the market for someone who could offer different organizations expertise, what the technology is, how to use it, how to develop a return on investment, really how to come from nothing as a machine vendor, and see if additive is a good solution.”
So in 2013, Vasquez founded 3Degrees, a 3D printing-focused consultancy based in Chicago.
Consulting in 3D printing is a growing business — now.
Earlier this decade, it was still something of a hard sell. Sharing insights into what was first “rapid prototyping” and then was major hype and the following disappointment is a significant mountain to scale. Add the relative youth of the founder and Vasquez says he encountered a lot of “Who is this guy, why should I listen to him?”
But he kept at it, and additive manufacturing continued to mature, as did the market that has begun to increasingly accept its viability. A good expert with rounded experience and formal training can be hard to find — but that’s just what Vasquez is.
“From 2013 to now, I’ve worked with about 40 different companies in a number of disciplines: aerospace, automotive, medical, you name it,” he said .”There are benefits and weaknesses of starting with zero, where you take what you get, so it was hard in the early days. I consulted in everything...I worked with OEMs to develop technology, worked to get into strategy and testing. It was kind of all over the place, but what it did help with was getting a really broad base, end-to-end, of what the problems were that we were dealing with in additive, from dealing with the fire marshall to speccing out a new supply chain.”
3Degrees has continued to grow, building up a clientele and its own team. Work with such a varied array of clients also helped Vasquez and his team see some of the larger trends affecting 3D printing and its potential usage.
“One of the things we kept finding over and over as we started to work with more companies working on the production side of things was that there was a need for us to help them document their data more accurately — in terms of quality data. Design inputs, material specs — what one did, particle size — post-processing, inspection, all of that. I was just using Excel spreadsheets to do that, and so were most of the folks we were working with. I realized I wish I had something a little bit better than Excel to do that,” he explained. “We looked at that in more detail and started talking to more people -- we talked to about 50 companies and some academic organizations, standards organizations like the FAA and the FDA, to find out: what are people requiring of these types of audits, how are people doing it now, and what’s required in the future.”
That, he says, is when TRACE was born.
Last fall, TRACE had a soft launch with a handful of organizations, including Renishaw and some manufacturing companies in the Midwest, and fully launched at AMUG 2019.
Again powered by Vasquez’s drive for entrepreneurial fit in the industry, TRACE has so far been funded by revenue from the consulting business. The official first paying customer is in the works now, and the endeavor is gearing up to announce some interesting (but still off-the-record) case studies to dig into more details.
Vasquez walked me through a demo of TRACE; a lot of it is shared in their intro video:
Once a template is developed for a particular project, details can be documented for standards, materials, personnel training, operating procedures, maintenance, equipment, and other critical workflow aspects.
“We integrated a lot of the workflow from what’s already been published,” Vasquez noted. “We can map to an ASTM specification for documentation. It takes a lot of the guesswork out.”
Specific standards can be designated to ensure a project meets them: “What you're really doing is building the story.”
Part of that story is, for example, materials tracking. Vasquez walked me through the process to track the powder, including relevant ratios, particle sizes, and other specs throughout the materials supply chain and usage. More automation is coming to the system, as well, further streamlining the operation.
“We’re creating this whole story about going from design to as-built part, with quality statements to sign off at the end. You can get a full report at one click, which is nice to generate for a customer. It’s all housed in one area and doesn’t require multiple spreadsheets to keep track of,” he noted. “This is essentially a tool I wish I’d had.”
The templates are all customizable for each user, as every application and every installation is different. Different processes are incorporated — think MJF or laser powder bed — “but for every user there’s one or two more things they want to track,” Vasquez said. “We can be there 90% of the way, but add a new template or add to a template in a few clicks.” The conversations to build the initial template and update with customizable tweaks have been many, and invaluable to the released product.
These conversations continue, and TRACE will have more to reveal in the very near future with a familiar name in the industry.
Looking for a good way to keep track of every part of an industrial additive manufacturing workflow? TRACE is well worth a look.