3D printing is seeing accelerated adoption in the workflow of manufacturing processes all around the world. Think of tools, molds, jigs, fixtures, cutting patterns, on-demand production of spare parts and even mass customization.
As of late, 3D printing has moved past the prototyping and one-off era and is now shifting rapidly towards small to midsize volume production of end-use parts. Yes, 3D printing is a production technology and yes, 3D printing is competing with traditional production processes for small batch and bridge manufacturing.
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Why a slow adoption rate?
So let’s talk about why industries have not been able to engage with 3D printing at scale. We’ve found the following reasons to be the most prevalent:
- Slow build rates
- Limited range of materials
- 3D printed parts / materials uncertified
- Properties of the 3D printed part
While these concerns were once valid, 3D printing has come a long way since in a very short time. Additive manufacturing companies are constantly improving each of these issues (and in many cases have already overcome them).
Faster build rates
Print speeds have seen a prolific increase in recent years with new technologies constantly pushing the envelope. Where once, watching a 3D printer in action used to elicit the same level of excitement one would get watching mushrooms grow, nowadays you can have a 3D printed part in your hands within an hour, or even minutes.
BigRep’s new Metering Extruder System (MXT) has the ability to print up to 400 cm³ per hour or with a speed of 1000 mm/s. The MXT technology gains better control over the amount and speed of material that is extruded by separating filament feeding and melting and molten extrusion.
HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology utilizes a ‘print bar’ with 30,000 nozzles spraying 350 million drops per second. This makes HP’s 3D printers 10 times faster than other powder bed fusion 3D printers.
Carbon‘s Digital Light Synthesis technology is groundbreaking and probably the fastest version of Vat Photopolymerisation in the world. Its continuous printing method is way faster than traditional DLP and peel resin printing methods.
Range of materials
Materials development, certification and registration are a crucial part of the manufacturing and 3D printing industries. The process of developing and registering materials varies from industry to industry and standards can vary from one functionality to another. A large chunk of the automotive industry, for example, uses only those materials that are listed in the International Material Data System (IMDS).
Aside from the proliferation of traditional filaments, resins and powders, there are a number of new developments currently making their way through the materials industry. Aside from the improvements in hardware and software, there is a massive race to develop systems that can process new metals, thermoplastics and even natural, sustainable materials. The new revolution is the materials revolution.
There are all sorts of organizations that monitor the applications and certifications for thermoplastics, metals and any other materials. These organizations include but are not limited to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), United States Pharmacopeia (USP), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and ASTM International, formally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
Medical 3D printing undergoes a lot of the industry testing and certification by the organizations described above. One recent and notable example is in Carbon’s Medical Polyurethane 100, which received both USP and ISO certifications. USP tests materials for quality, purity, strength and consistency, while ISO tests for safety, reliability and quality.
Another good example of certified printing materials can be seen in how HP’s thermoplastics received various UL certifications.
Multi-material 3D printing
There is a bit of confusion about multi-material 3D printing and what encompasses this particular field. Multi-material printing in this case means two different classes of materials merging together under the same process. While certain FDM printers can process a regular material and, for example, a different support material, this is not what the industry generally considers when discussing multi-material applications. Similarly, combining two different metals in one print is very different from combining two polymers in a similar heat range, even if they are processed simultaneously. This is due to the very different conditions each metal may require compared to the relatively similar conditions for most printing polymers. While these sorts of multi-material applications are still in their relative infancy, the field has shown immense promise with a number of different technologies.
Using more than one material in a single 3D printing process also eliminates the need to use adhesives or other connections between joints that are currently required when fabricating multimaterial objects in this way. The seamless integration of materials opens up the field for entirely new designs and functionalities, such as building new alloys and stronger composites.
Properties of a 3D printed part
3D printed parts are getting certified and verified more and more. Improved 3D printing techniques and post processing have mitigated the quality issues additively manufactured parts previously faced.
Closed loop control for 3D printers
Closed loop 3D printing systems are a big step towards getting certified 3D printed parts. A closed system detects any missed steps in the print process as the machine keeps track of where it is and where it should be. While printing, a stepper motor could occasionally miss a step which means that an entire layer of the print and, as a result, every subsequent layer will be just slightly off, resulting in an end-part which might look like it should but doesn’t have the mechanical properties it should have.
As 3D printing edges towards production of functional parts in industries like healthcare, automotive and consumer products, there is a distinct need to produce flawless end-use parts.
Isotropic strength of 3D printed parts varies across different additive manufacturing technologies. Since Material Extrusion works with successive layers relying on mechanical adhesion, it has weaker isotropic strength in the z direction. Material extrusion prints are also pervaded by microscopic voids and holes. Lately, companies like Essentium and BigRep have launched products that bring isotropic strength to material extrusion technologies.
Vat Polymerisation printing methods typically produce isotropic parts because the layers join with chemical bonds rather than just melting together.
Similarly, certain Powder Bed Fusion technologies sinter polymer particles together rather than depositing plastic extrusion, there is much less directional dependency on material properties. In general, powder based technologies can achieve better isotropy at lower temperatures.
Modern printing techniques can create surface textures that are impossible to duplicate with traditional manufacturing. These can be particularly advantageous in industries such as automotive and cosmetics, where what would often be considered secondary characteristics, become a crucial selling point for a product. Things like the feel, grip and smell of an object.
Applying texture to a part or a product often requires costly and complex etching treatment to a mold or laborious post-processing on the part itself. Aside from matching the mechanical properties of injection molded parts, Carbon also tout the ability to create entirely new textures with interesting properties such as low-friction or hydrophobicity. Additionally, their DLS process can create shapes with detailed curves and unmoldable textures.
When to Opt for 3D printing
There are so many tried and true production technologies out there, so when do you choose 3D printing? What unique advantages does it bring to the table for manufacturers?
3D printing allows for geometrical structures that are impossible to create with other production technologies.
Less assembly time, less waste, less weight
When designing for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM) is done right, it enables you to merge certain parts of a product which can decrease assembly time. It also enables you to create custom infill / recesses which can lead to lighter, stronger parts and a reduction in material cost when compared to machining.
With 3D printing you can create surface textures deemed impossible with other production technologies. A variety of digital applications allow designers to pursue all sorts of crazy ideas with utmost precision in their minute details.
Time to market
With injection molding, tooling usually takes 12-16 weeks. With 3D printing you can start production right away. 3D printing shortens design and production cycles compared to traditional methods and increases the speed of delivery.
The ability to localise production brings more of the manufacturing process inhouse, allowing for reductions in inventory and in the footprint (environmental and physical). Additionally you keep intellectual property inhouse. With localized production, companies can produce without over-reliance on external parties.
Intellectual property (I.P.)
By its very nature 3D printing allows massive potential for patents. However this only works if the patent can’t be designed around, so take professional advice before wasting time and delaying the development process.
As a production method, 3D printing shines as an economical means for small to midsize volume production of end-use parts. Below are two cases where 3D printing drastically altered the manufacturing approaches of various companies.
Boyce Technologies: Air duct for cooling system
- 3D printer: BigRep Pro
- Printer type: Filament, Large Scale
- Material: Pro HT
NYC-based Boyce Technologies, Inc. designs and manufactures security and communications equipment for the mass transit market. In 2017 Boyce decided to integrate additive manufacturing into its operations. While the company had previously not seen a need for 3D printing, by exploring options and researching viability they changed their position and decided to transform how they produce equipment. The company invested in a BigRep Pro, with the intention to use it 90% for prototyping and perhaps 10% to create end-use parts. The reality has turned out to be exactly the opposite.
Preparation time has been significantly cut back compared to the traditional subtractive processes Boyce had been using. In one case, they found that 3-6 hours of prep time for CNC aluminum was able to be reduced to 15-30 minutes when the same part was 3D printed.
Additionally, machining can result in 60-80% waste material which, at $0.40-.60/pound of aluminum, is not insignificant. Plastic filament on the other hand is $12/pound with less waste, effectively eliminating extra expenses like waste management and environmental offset costs.
When it comes to post-processing, labor times are also notably reduced. For metal parts, finishing work required 12 people, currently only two people are needed to post-process plastic parts, freeing up the team’s labor force to work on more projects.
Boyce has been experiencing the benefits of 3D printing in reducing costs and bringing products to market faster. Parts can be made to the exact specifications without outsourcing work. Furthermore, unlike injection molding, expensive tooling is not required when creating end-use parts.
I didn’t think I needed 3D printing and now I can’t live without it. Charles Boyce, president of Boyce Technologies
Rollertrain: Bearing cage for split roller bearings
- 3D printed per year: 10.000
- 3D printer: HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200
- Printer type: Powder bed fusion
- Material: HP PA 11
John Handley Bearings teamed up with Bowman to design a new range of split roller bearings. These bearings are an important factor in heavy-duty industrial sectors like mining and quarrying due to its ability to improve efficiency, reduce downtime and increase production.
The cage of these split roller bearings, named ‘Rollertrain’ is designed by Bowman and is entirely 3D printed. The Rollertrain is designed with 3D printing in mind which allowed them to reduce space of the rolling elements compared to traditional “cap and body” cage designs. The additional space around the roller track now incorporates up to 45 percent more rollers than existing bearings. This results in an increased radial capacity of 70 percent and an increased axial capacity by a 1,000 percent. The fitting time for Rollertrain cages is slashed by 50 percent. Additionally it’s worth mentioning that 3D printing is the only manufacturing method capable of bringing this concept to reality in an economically viable way.
There has long been a perception that 3D printing is only suitable for prototyping and one-offs. A misplaced sense that 3D printing is too expensive and 3D printed parts don’t have the right properties have contributed to the idea that additive manufacturing isn’t up to the task of being used as a production technology. When it comes down to small and midsize volumes, 3D printing is set to continue to outpace traditional manufacturing methods.
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