3D printing is an industry valued at around 7.3 billion dollars in 2018. It’s an industry that has seen relatively significant growth over the past few decades. Year over year, respondents to Wohlers Report cite a steady trend of transitioning 3D printing from non-functional to functional parts – including the use of 3D printing for short run and series production. However, if we were to ask current adopters of 3D printing how they want to use the technology versus how they’re currently using the technology, the majority might respond with this:
We want to use 3D printing to cut time to market by using the technology for larger scale final parts production, but we’re mainly using 3D printing for highly customized one-off parts.
Why has 3D printing become consigned to the niche sidelines of production pipelines? On the whole, users find current 3D printing methods lack strength and speed. Due to those limitations, 3D printing cannot scale up to compete with other production means. This isn’t to say 3D printing isn’t valuable as a solution for manufacturing highly customized parts, but it’s not the kind of value manufacturers want.
What's Inhibiting 3D printing from reaching an industrial scale?
To quote Essentium's head of R&D for materials and co-founder Brandon Sweeney, Ph.D.:
“When building a structure brick by brick, the structure is only as strong as the interface holding each brick together.”
In the same way, 3D printed parts are as weak as the bonding between each layer. Over time, 3D printing technology has gotten much better at strengthening the bonds between each layer, but usually through post-processing methods. For example, Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) methods require post heat treatments to strengthen layers. Parts printed with stereolithography are placed in UV ovens to finalize curing. Metal 3D printed parts must undergo stress relief and heat treatments after a build to achieve ideal density. While post-processing helps 3D printed parts achieve strengths more similar to injection molding or die casting, that initial weakness between layers can haunt the part throughout its shelf life.
To increase the viability of a 3D printed part, Essentium developed FlashFuseTM technology. FlashFuse uses a plasma heat source to conduct electricity through a network of carbon nanotubes integrated into Essentium’s materials. The heat and electricity react to form a process akin to welding. This reaction occurs as each new layer is deposited. The result is a significantly stronger bond between each layer without the need for post-processing. 3D printed parts built with FlashFuse achieve strength and flexibility much closer to the strength and flexibility of an injection molded or machined part.
Rather than making up for a lack of layer bond integrity in post, users can now achieve much stronger bonds during the actual print.
There are a number of factors that contribute to the speed of 3D printing: geometry, size, and material are just a few. Tackling speed in 3D printing can feel like chasing after a moving target. For example, a large, simple part can take as long to print as a small highly complex part.
We’ve already got a blog post on some of the most common compromises engineers will make when trying to speed up a print, but that’s not the only solution.
When it comes to extrusion 3D printing processes, speeding up the time it takes for the nozzle (or print head) to pass over a layer of material is only half the equation. The speed an extrusion process can achieve while maintaining accuracy is directly related to heat and force.
At Essentium, we tackled this challenge first by developing a platform with all linear motors. This gives us the ability to achieve 3G acceleration at >1M/sec movement speeds. Next we increased temperatures. Higher temperatures at higher speeds gives us the ability to extrude at a much greater force with finer control. Our platform uses a proprietary Hozzle to achieve 10-15x the force of other extrusion nozzles with temperature controls as acute as 20-600 degree changes in 3 seconds. Combined, each layer – each detail – is deposited with our FlashFuse reaction, and cured at 10x the speed of traditional extrusion processes. All this gives you 10x faster speed to part without having to compromise part accuracy of material performance.
We’ve broken down two of the biggest barriers keeping 3D printing from being a viable industrial manufacturing solution. So what does it look like to have 3D printing technology that is stronger and faster?
Our client is an early adopter of our High Speed Extrusion (HSE) Platform, Essentium’s large format 3D printer. Using the HSE and our Ultrafuse PA-CF material, the client 3D printed a soft tool, which was then machined in-house to a Class A surface finish. The 3D printed tool was used to produce 100s of production parts, which the client installed within their high-end vehicles. The 3D printed tool cut time to tool by more than 98 percent compared to aluminum tooling and 88 percent compared to other 3D printing extrusion methods.
3D printing achieves industrial levels of manufacturing when used as a complement to production processes. Rather than machining a tool, you can print it and then use that 3D printed tool within your production pipeline the same way you would use a soft tool made with more traditional means.
It takes users from “I want to use 3D printing to cut time to market by using the technology for larger scale final parts production” to “I am using 3D printing to cut time to market by using the technology for larger scale final parts production.”
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