Production lines based on 3d printing are a technological dream, just imagine the possibilities of having complex products being made on a line that is fast and infinitely reconfigurable. The line would combine economics of scale seen on standard manufacturing line with 3d printing features. In theory you could have thousands of highly complex products, each customized in some way but in the price range of mass produced items.
The last major attempt in this field was 3D Systems partnership with Motorola to produce customizable Google Ara smartphone modules on their inkjet based manufacturing line. This concept came to a disappointing end in December of 2014. Since the technology was unable to meet the demands needed for Ara production at that time so polycarbonate with dye sublimation was used instead. 3D Systems will probably continue to work on it, and probably implement it in the future on a large industrial scale. No one suspects that the technology is not feasible but it will take some time …
Here is a different iteration of this idea by major European player in this technology field: the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and their “Fast and Flexible production line” pilot platform for additive manufacturing. It’s basically a commercial scale 3d printing factory that can produce things like chip cards, batteries or complex electronic gadgets at high speeds. It can also be used by pharmaceutical companies that want to give each pill customised ingredients while keeping strict control of production parameters or high throughput screening of bioactive materials.
Outlined technical specifications are impressive:
The production line consists of 100 identical 75 x 50 mm platforms, moving around on a continuous belt. At a constant speed of 2 m/s these platforms encounter a variety of different production elements of choice. TNO developed a range of print heads for ink-jetting different materials on the fly. These are mainly UV-curable polymers or conductive ink with droplet sizes as small as 30 microns enabling features as small as 80 microns with a placement accuracy of 0.1 mm.
The machine can work in two modes: as standalone full production unit making fully finished objects where each object can be unique or as a post-processing line where semi-finished products can be polished, glued or subjected to laser treatment in one quick and continuous motion. The machine also facilitates the use of a pick-and-place machine to insert computer chips, LEDs or other (electronic) functionalities. Other industrial appliances like robots can be integrated in the line.
For this machine TNO has developed advanced jetting 3d print technology: High Viscosity Jetting. Their print head that can work with polymers reaching viscosities up to 500 mPa•s at room temperature while other commercially available systems mostly operate around 20 mPa•s.
Here is a video of the machine in action:
You can learn more about this amazing technology on the TNO project page:
TNO has open invitation for companies to connect with them to explore possibilities for implementation of this technology.
Credits for all images and graphics: TNO