The rapid growth in 3D printing over the last five years has seen the fabrication method being adopted to some extent, by the spectrum of manufacturing industries.
Its influence has been so transformative that it is directly impacting on every sector of industry from initial design concepts right through to personalised commercial products.
3D printing now provides robust, high resolution, and critically, functional prototypes and products that significantly reduce design and development times while in turn allowing for more efficient design solutions.
However, within established industry, the terms 3D printing and additive fabrication are still often greeted with an air of dismissive scepticism.
It is possible that this scepticism is a legacy of earlier 3D printed prototypes from a time (not that long ago) when 3D printers were only used to produce fragile demonstration models.
The hype surrounding 3D printing has led consumers to think that 3D printing will solve all needs.
Naive assumptions often results in a would-be consumer’s disappointment and dismissal of the whole technology.
The truth is that 3D printers are just another addition to the existing set of workshop tools and just like in any workshop, each tool is suited to own special role.
The term, 3D printing, covers a vast range of technologies.
There are now printers for plastics, metals, ceramics, bio-materials, and even chocolate!
The common denominator in all of these technologies is that they are “additive”.
Components are produced by adding material, in successive layers until the final structure has been completed; in much the same way as a wall is built.
If however, the structure that we are producing is very complex and includes a feature such as an overhang or an arch, it is possible to build the component with two materials, where one acts as a supporting material, a support material that can be removed once the part has been completed, a scaffold of sorts.
So why is there scepticism? It comes down to expectations.
Most people are first introduced to 3D printing through hobbyist or entry level fused deposition modelling systems, the type of printer that you can now buy in a local stationary store.
These systems have their place in the market, and the technique upon which they are based is still indeed the cornerstone of one of the industry leaders business, but they do have their limitations.
The parts they produce generally have layer thicknesses of 0.25mm, can be rough in texture, and visually cannot compare with a precision injection moulded plastic part. But does this matter?
Certainly not if, the part is only required in small numbers, will go though design revisions, and most importantly is, fit for purpose.
For those who require surface finishes that are more akin to glossy injection moulded parts there are alternatives out there.
Here though we are confronted by another expectation ... cost.
There is a misconception that for a small cost you will receive an intricate model that looks like it has fallen straight out of a moulding machine.
Unfortunately, this is not true.
Expectations are often based on the costs of consumer goods, but these goods are mass manufactured in volumes that offset the costs of machining production moulds.
In general 3D printed parts are in low volumes, produced from proprietary materials and have to be hand finished.
Right now, this is probably the most exciting space in 3D printing.
The industry leaders, and emerging competitors, are acutely aware of the markets demands, driving print resolution higher and material choice broader.
In this sector, detail is key. Within this class of printer the single nozzle extrusion based systems are swept aside and replaced with precise inkjet technology.
In an almost hypnotic process ultrathin 16 micro layers of the build material are deposited and solidified with each step.
Finished components can easily rival injection moulded parts for accuracy and in some cases surface finish too.
CammPro, a NSW company based near Wollongong, part of the CAMM Engineering Group, has adopted such technology.
They are working with Australian injection moulding companies to take the process one step further and bridge the gap between 3D printing and precision moulded parts.
Their approach is to use 3D printing to directly produce moulding tool inserts.
The incentive driving this is the capability for moulders to perform early validation trails and compliance testing before committing to the much greater expense of final tool manufacture and the potential to avoid tool reworking.
There are also benefits in lead time reduction, which could be as much as 90 percent.
CammPro have used a durable composite material from Objet called ABS-like in producing trial tool inserts compatible with thermoplastics with good flowability at <300⁰C.
Practical candidates include PE, PP, PS, ABS, TPE, PA, POM, PC-ABS and glass filled resins.
Produced tools are ideal for low production runs and tests of midsized parts (< 165 cc), with quantities typically between 5 to 100 units.
Operating parameters have to be tailored to the mould but generally run at lower injection speeds and longer cooling cycle times.
There may still be sceptics out there, but 3D printing has advanced to the point where the practical benefits are undeniable – it is a set of tools that rewrites the rules.
Ph: 02 4257 3201