Helio’s Dragon Software Set to Bring Predictability to Additive Manufacturing

Physics-based simulation and optimization software aims to reduce waste, cut costs and speed the process of 3D printing.

Robert Grace

June 22, 2024

8 Min Read
simulation in additive manufacturing
Helios Additive

At a Glance

  • Dragon leverages first-principles physics to deliver fast, no-code simulation and optimization.
  • We take your parameters in the form of this G-code file, and then we optimize it.
  • We work with material companies to bring their materials into Dragon.

When David Hartmann met Dr. Xiaofan Luo in Shanghai a decade ago, something just clicked. The two shared a vision about vastly improving the simulation and optimization processes for additive manufacturing (AM).


“Look,” Luo said, “I think the core problem is not the hardware or the materials. The core problem is the physics behind the process and the materials in the process. And nobody really understands this, nobody can really predict this, and therefore we just can't get the reliability that we want.”


Hartmann, long fascinated with digital manufacturing, agreed. But the native New Zealander was busy in a leadership role in China for German materials giant Covestro AG. Five years ago, the two men met again in Germany, and both lamented the relative lack of technical progress they had seen in the AM industry. That relit the spark.

The Spark Turns to Action

Luo –– who received a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and a Ph.D. in biomedical and chemical engineering from Syracuse University –– was running 3D materials company Polymaker. He had co-founded the company in 2013 in Shanghai. Its stated mission was to simplify the creation process and “to make 3D printing more accessible, user-friendly, and efficient by offering high-quality materials and hardware.”

In revisiting those early days, Hartmann recounted his conversation with Luo in a recent phone interview from his home in New Zealand. A materials engineer and scientist, Luo said he had some ideas about this. Luo told him: “If we can predict at a very, very micro level, exactly what's going on with the cooling of a part as it's printed, and if we can build a bridge between that and the layer bonding and stress relaxation,” then we can vastly improve the 3D printing process. Those factors, he noted, are really the main contributors to issues such as warping, and other kinds of performance degradation.


Predicting Parameters for ‘the Perfect Print’

“If we can do that,” Luo continued, “then we could predict exactly what process parameters you need to get a perfect print. And by the way, I think we could speed up printing by two to five times. And we could reduce scrap mass massively.”

The parties then went to Georgia Institute of Technology, where they knew some people, and worked with a post-doctoral student there. They secured some funding and researched the concept for the next six months or so. The team jointly concluded that they were truly on to something.

Newly energized, Hartmann left Covestro, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting, and started working on what would become Helio Additive. Its aim: To build a physics-based process optimizer for additive manufacturing. “I figured if we did this,” Hartmann said, “we could be the catalyst that triggers a whole new wave of growth in 3D printing.”

Hartmann said he started hiring some really smart engineers, and thought they’d have it all figured out in six months. “And now,” he says, “we're three and a half years in and launching our first product. It’s amazing. We're doing exactly what we set out to do. It's just three years later than what I thought.”

At Long Last, Introducing Dragon

At the RAPID+TCT 2024 show in Los Angeles, they will finally pull back the curtain on the results of their collaboration –– a new software platform called Dragon. Delaware-based Helio, in a statement released on June 21, calls it “a groundbreaking process simulation and optimization software platform set to reduce cost and increase productivity in large-format additive manufacturing.

Dragon leverages first-principles physics to deliver fast, no-code simulation and optimization, ensuring high-quality prints on the first attempt.”

Helio has focused its initial efforts on big printers –– large-scale additive manufacturing (LSAM) –– though Hartmann clearly sees it benefiting desktop and other types of AM eventually, as well. In explaining briefly how it works, he referred to the geometric code, or G-code, which is a common programming language that originated in the CNC (computer numerically controlled) machining sector. The AM industry has adopted the terminology.

G-code is typically generated by slicer software. The software takes a 3D model, slices it into layers, and then generates G-code commands for each layer. These commands instruct the printer where to move, how fast to move, and when to extrude filament.

The slicer, Hartmann explained, will decide exactly what the tool path of the machine will be, set extrusion parameters and then spit out an instruction set for the printer.


Fine-tuning the Printing Process

“When you go into a printing process, you have hundreds of thousands of parameters,” he said. These include things such as what speed you travel at, how much material you extrude, what is the ideal temperature and what is the toolpath? You need to optimize these parameters.

“What we do is we take in whatever parameters you've got in the form of this G-code file, and then we optimize it and give you something back that is guaranteed is to print first time. And that is usually quite a bit faster, as well.”

How much faster depends on your original settings, but he says Helio is consistently getting 20 to 30 percent speed increases. Additionally, he noted, you also get significantly better mechanical properties (such as, for example, tensile strength, especially in the z direction).

Getting big prints right the first time can save huge amounts of time, money and scrap. Hartmann said he has seen people printing eight- or nine-meter-long boat hulls for two or three days. “And then, on day three, all of a sudden, you have defects appearing, you just have to scrap whatever you've printed already, which may be 400 or 500 kilos of material.”


Eliminating Costly Waste

This can make Helio and Dragon very cost efficient, he said. “We charge users per optimized layer in the print. So if your current job is 1,000 layers, we will charge you 1,000 tokens. ... Our price is really reasonable. So it might cost you $150 to optimize a boat hull, but you could save $6,000 to $10,000 on wasted labor and scrap. You're effectively buying this massive insurance for your part quality.”

Another powerful aspect about Dragon, Hartmann says, is that it's really, really fast. A user can run a simulation and get results in minutes, or tens of minutes, depending on the size of the part. “It's completely no code.” Unlike other types of software, one doesn’t need an engineering degree or a whole lot of training to be able to run it.

“With Dragon, you effectively type in some parameters, upload your file, and you're good to go. And it's completely cloud native. So you don't have to deploy a massive infrastructure on your side, we handle all the complexity in the cloud.”

He noted that Helio also can serve as a materials library. “The polymer physics and the material side and characterizing of materials is a big part of our core know-how. And so we work with material companies to bring their materials into Dragon.” Such customers pay a yearly subscription fee for Helio to keep their materials in Dragon.


The Product Launches

To celebrate the product’s long-awaited launch, Hartmann said his firm is  offering a free trial of Dragon along with complimentary Polymaker material (conditions apply). “This limited-time offer,” Helio says, “provides an excellent opportunity for users to experience the transformative power of Dragon and Polymaker materials first-hand.”

Hartmann says he sees LSAM as just the start. “We're seeing equally powerful results in consumer and industrial FDM [fused deposition modeling]. And so we're working very closely together with some of the biggest names in FDM –– mainly on an industrial side now. But our view is that next year, we'll also do that on a consumer side.”

About the Author(s)

Robert Grace

Robert Grace is a writer, editor, and marketing communications professional who has been active in B2B journalism since 1980. After editing trade publications in London for seven years, he returned to the US in 1989 to help start the weekly Plastics News. Bob was PN’s editor-in-chief for 25 years and also served as its associate publisher and conference director. In May 2014 he founded RC Grace LLC and has developed an active freelance business.

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