Additive manufacturing firms are focused intently on speeding up the 3D printing process, radically expanding the development of printing materials, printing larger parts, wasting less material, reducing the cost of capital equipment overall and addressing issues that will lead to the move from prototyping to rapid manufacturing.
NScrypt CEO Kenneth Church believes the 3D printing industry needs to benchmark against the circuit board industry.
“We are working harder to gain the performance that printed circuit boards get,” he said, noting the importance of getting the right materials and putting those together with great precision to match the speed of the circuit board industry.
Matching the speed and precision of the circuit board industry will bring additive manufacturing closer to rapid manufacturing.
“3D printing better learn to manufacture rapidly,” Church said. “One of the things that we are striving to accomplish is rapid manufacturing. We want to make it so rapid and digital that we can do mass customization.”
Electronically functional parts, including circuit boards, can be printed as part of designs, a major advancement from traditional, structurally functional printed parts.
In 2016 the Berlin-based startup Next Dynamics introduced the NexD1 3D printer, a multi-material machine capable of printing electronically functional circuit boards and electronics.
It can print six materials at once and combine them for a wide range of characteristics that include conductivity, transparency, flexibility and strength, temperature resistance and more.
The process of printing electronically functional parts begins in an additive way, layer by layer, but with multiple materials, Church explained. Some of those materials are not just structurally functional but also electronically functional. Combining the materials makes it easy to mimic a printed circuit board.
HP has plans to progress in the area, as well.
“As we build up our powder layers, we have been demonstrating how we can jet conductive materials into that powder and build simple circuits,” HP’s Tim Weber said.
Across the industry, companies are working to bring down the cost of parts that are printed and waste less material.
“One of the inherent benefits of additive manufacturing technologies is to reduce material waste by only adding the material that is necessary to manufacture parts,” said Chuck Alexander of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, a provider of advanced manufacturing services and a unit of Stratasys. Combining technologies that have some material waste, like machining, with additive technologies is another way to reduce material waste, he added.
Two demonstration fused deposition modeling (FDM) platforms, robotic composite and infinite build, have new extrusion technology that increased the amount of material deposited by ten-fold in the same amount of time as current commercially available equipment. This new technology will increase throughput dramatically while not significantly adding to the capital expenditure cost.
More focus on high-powered lasers
Creating 3D printers with additional high-powered lasers to speed up the printing process is becoming a common goal.
SLM Solutions, a provider of additive technology and machinery for metal part prototypes and manufacturing production, recently updated the SLM 280. The 3D printer used to feature 400W lasers but can now be equipped to feature two upgraded 700W lasers.
“More power equals faster build speed. If you have two lasers, it kind of goes twice as fast as one laser,” SLM Solutions’ Richard Grylls said. “Similarly, with power if you can run it at 700 W instead of 400 W, you have not quite doubled your build speed.”
Having one low-power laser and trying to build a big part could take months and become very unaffordable, he noted.
The company is also striving to create machines that will enable larger parts to be built.
One of SLM Solutions recently upgraded machines, the SLM 500, has a 500-mm capability for high-volume, metal part production. It features four 700W lasers and has been on the market for about a year. SLM last year announced plans to introduce a machine with an 800-mm capability.
Its 3D printers are used by the auto, aerospace and defense, medical equipment and oil and gas industries.
Renishaw takes AiM at shop floor
Renishaw in September began taking orders for its newest machine, the RenAM 500M, a laser-powder bed-fusion additive manufacturing system designed specifically for the production of metal components on the factory floor. It also offers higher wattage and laser power-enabling parts to be printed faster.
The RenAM 500M is designed and engineered with serialized production in mind, building complex metallic components directly from CAD, using metal powder bed fusion technology and a dynamic focusing beam delivery. The machine is the first to have an optical module and control technology designed and engineered by Renishaw. The machine’s higher wattage laser power enables parts to be printed faster.
“Higher laser wattage is the key driver to achieving greater productivity, and accessing a wider range of metal powders that can be processed,” Renishaw’s Robert Chiari said.
The RenAM 500M produces parts within a 250 x 250 x 350 mm (9.84 x 9.84 x 13.77″) build volume and uses a high-powered ytterbium fiber laser to create functional 3D parts. Each system can be dedicated to a single material type for lights-out manufacturing.
The system uses in-line sieving to recycle and reuse powder in a single process under an inert atmosphere, reducing user interaction and production time. Metallic powder is loaded into the machine hopper at the front of the system and sieved ultrasonically. Any unmelted material is returned to the hopper and passes through the ultrasonic sieve before being processed. Sieved powder is pneumatically transferred in a flow of high purity argon gas into the powder delivery silo.
A high-capacity, dual filter system enables part builds to run for long periods in a stable and controlled atmosphere. Filters capture process emissions safely and efficiently and the machine’s intelligent control system actively senses the filter’s condition and redirects the gas circuit to a clean filter before conditions deteriorate.
For shops looking to maximize capital investments, the company also offers an AM400 model designed as a “flexible system” to handle multiple material types. The 400 is a true open system and allows development of material parameters that best suit end-user part geometries.
An updated version of Renishaw’s QuantAM build file-preparation software is dedicated to its metal AM systems. In four steps, from orientation to support; to layout and review, the user can import CAD data and create a machine-ready build file.
HP seeks to break new ground
HP began shipping its first 3D printer, the HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution, in December.
The company has been working on 3D printing technology for years but waited to enter the market until it had “something disruptive” to offer, Weber said, noting that the machine leverages HP’s decades of research into precision mechanics, microfluidics and materials sciences.
The HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution allows functional parts to be printed for the first time at the individual voxel level. A voxel is the 3D equivalent of a 2D pixel in traditional printing.
One of the fundamental differences is that it has higher throughput from a productivity standpoint, which lets it print 10 times faster than FDM & Selective Laser Sintering printer solutions. And that’s one reason Weber believes HP is positioned to go after manufacturing and not just prototyping.
Diversity in materials promised
HP and Stratasys Direct have plans to expand their material sets. Stratasys Direct spent almost a year qualifying the material Monel K500 in the direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) process and introduced it last year. It is being used in specialized applications for rocket engines and the oil and gas industries.
In rocket engines, pre-burner injector manifolds for liquid oxygen used to be machined as multiple components and then assembled. Using DMLS and Monel K500, the manifold can be built as a single component.
In oil and gas, Monel K500’s corrosion resistance to oxygen, seawater and hydrogen sulphide is well suited for instruments and electronic sensors used in drilling operations.
In addition to Monel K500 for DMLS, Stratasys Direct recently introduced a resin called Somos PerFORM, for stereolithography (SL).
Stratasys Direct also upgraded Somos Element for SL, an antimony-free material used to make investment casting patterns.
Antimony can act as a contaminant when casting super alloys like titanium, so having pattern-making material that is antimony free allows for more investment casting foundries to take advantage of the low cost and speed of SL investment casting patterns, Alexander said.
Stratasys Direct is currently in the process of introducing PEKK CF HT23 made with the LS process. PEKK is a high-temperature engineering thermoplastic that can be used to replace certain metal parts in aerospace and transportation, providing light-weighting benefits that make vehicles more fuel efficient.
HP customers will soon have access to PA11, a tough, flexible thermoplastic, for functional prototyping and final parts. It is ideal for snap-fits and complex assemblies, housings, enclosures and connectors and will let customers produce high-density parts. More materials will be available with the next implementation of Multi Jet Fusion technology.
“Over the long term, our plan is to have many different materials, including the ones that we engineer at the voxel level,” Weber said. “Ultimately, what is really going to enable smart manufacturing is when you can build a part and change the properties of that part in a multitude of different ways.”
EnvisionTEC, which develops, makes and sells more than 40 models of 3D printers, also plans to expand its material set.
The firm and many of its competitors are working with chemical and metal companies to develop new materials.
EnvisionTEC recently introduced a number of new materials, including PolyPro Max, which its research team developed for the manufacturing segment.
It also began selling the E-Shell 450 line, which is used for inner ear devices like hearing aid shells, and E-Guard, a transparent and biocompatible material for printing mouth guards and bite splints in the dental industry.
“Materials are crucial for the advancement of 3D printing because different industries have different needs in terms of what they would like to print,” EnvisionTEC’s Sarah Webster said.
EnvisionTEC has an exclusive partnership with Viridis3D, which introduced the RAM 123 early last year. It is specifically aimed at 3D printing sand molds and cores for the foundry industry.
“Our robotic technology is competing against traditional methods that take many days to deliver a final casted product,” Webster said. “This robotic technology has the opportunity to deliver final parts much faster for foundry customers and allows foundries to carry their inventory digitally instead of having to store large patterns in a warehouse.”
A lot of manufacturers are trying to lightweight vehicles and airplanes to offer better fuel economy and are moving from metals like steel to composites, she noted.
EnvisionTEC offers a 3D printer that makes a variety of composite objects, including those made with carbon fiber.
The firm offers the only industrial thermoplastic reinforced woven composite 3D printer available today. Called SLCOM 1, it uses a new patent-pending process known as Selective Lamination Composite Object Manufacturing.
The SLCOM 1 is available with a wide range of custom-made thermoplastic reinforced unidirectional or multidirectional woven fibers tailored to the customer’s performance needs. These composite matrix materials deliver high-quality, 3D-printed parts suitable for use in aerospace, automotive, consumer products and sporting goods, and there are potential applications in the medical space.
“We believe this … machine, which can build objects up to 10 cubic feet, will change the face of composite manufacturing,” Webster said, noting that no other machine on the market has the same capabilities.
The company has seen an interest in the SLCOM 1 from the aerospace, defense, automotive and composite research markets.
“We have been doing testing with carbon fiber and fiberglass infused with a variety of thermoplastics, but the SLCOM 1 can laminate a variety of bidirectional and unidirectional fibers together with various thermoplastics,” she said.
Will VR sub in for prototyping?
Virtual reality (VR) execs have asserted VR will replace rapid prototyping, a big part of what AM does.
Stratasys Direct’s Alexander doesn’t believe it.
“Ultimately, we do not live in a virtual world,” he said. “We need real products when we come out of the virtual world. There is some prototyping that can be done in the virtual world” but prototyping that enables touching and holding and lifting with arms and hands will not go away.
One example of this is the wind tunnel model prototyped with SL in Somos PerFORM material.
Physical prototyping has also proved invaluable for conformal fuel tanks in unmanned aerial vehicles. These fuel tanks are typically manufactured with the laser sintering (LS) process in Nylon 11 or 12 material, Alexander added.
An important consideration in fuel tank design is understanding the performance envelope of the vehicle; primarily how the aircraft is oriented and what forces are being applied to the liquid fuel that may prevent the fuel from being delivered to the engine, he said.
Stratasys Direct has had customers who, even after extensive modeling and simulating in the virtual environment, have seen the fuel tanks fail when they were physically tested. “I believe that as systems become more complex the time and expense to model those completely and accurately virtually is far greater than the time and expense to prototype with additive manufacturing,” he said, adding that virtual prototyping and physical prototyping are technologies best used in tandem rather than independently.