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3D printing developments are centered around size and complexity of printed objects

Images from FABTECH 2017 at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL.

March 28, 2018      

Larger, more diversified, and other expanded capabilities are becoming increasingly commonplace in the additive manufacturing market. Recent 3D printing developments have focused on not only improving the quality of printed materials but also the size of outputs, opening up a whole range of new opportunities for the technology.

In 10 years, the 3D printing industry is predicted to be worth $22 billion. Additive manufacturing is moving from simply being a means of rapid prototyping to an economically viable means of mass production. Much of this growth will be driven by the expansion of printing capabilities, in both the size and complexity of finished products.

Metals at the center of 3D printing developments

3D printing systems are now able to print metals at competitive prices, with startup Desktop Metals developing a system that costs only $120,000 and is capable of producing metal parts significantly cheaper and faster than traditional machining technologies. Such is the potential of the system that it has propelled the company into rounding up significant fundraising support. Desktop Metal has joined lists of the most influential players in the additive manufacturing world.

In another example, 3D Systems is expanding both its hardware and software offerings for metal and plastic additive manufacturing, print materials, and on-demand manufacturing services. In addition, 3D Systems’ extensive partner network helps its broadening range of customers improve their production outcomes. The network makes it easier for companies to integrate 3D printing developments into their production environments.

Aerospace, automotive, and other industries have started using 3D printing rather than machining for parts because the lower cost and faster completion. As additive manufacturing is proven for high-performance parts, more markets will adopt it.

This includes printers such as 3D Systems’ ProX DMP 320, the high-precision, high-throughput direct-metal printer optimized for critical applications requiring complex, chemically-pure titanium, stainless steel, or nickel superalloy parts.

Electronics integration

3D printing developments

3D printing on display at the Fabtech show in Chicago.

3D Systems and Fabrisonic are now among companies that offer additive manufacturing processes that provide embedded electronics in the metal printed part.

The key in these 3D printing developments, according to Mark Norfolk, president and CEO of Fabrisonic, is to use a process that heats the metal to no more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. While that is too cold of a temperature for metal to melt for bonding with other metals, by moving at a fast enough speed to remove oxidation, the additive manufacturing process removes any oxidation, so metals will stick together.

The solid-state nature of this bonding process enables the joining of different metals without the brittleness found in the fusion process

Norfolk added that the company’s ultrasonic additive manufacturing process can be stopped at any time so that channels for wires or other electronic components can be added.

This way, the electronic components can be sealed, so they won’t suffer the same degradation that components exposed to the elements suffer. Fabrisonic’s low-temperature process enables the sensors to be embedded into solid metal parts without damage.

Scientists at Harvard University have also added sensing capabilities to soft robots. They have used a system that forgoes traditional sensors in favor of a 3D-printed conductive ink that can communicate touch or contact with the robot’s control system. 3D printing developments in these soft robotic applications could have important uses in manufacturing as well as in medical devices and prosthetics.

Other soft robotic uses come from the printing of gallium alloys, a flexible yet conductive compound that could open up more electronics printing applications including flexible screens.

Increasing size, increasing opportunity

While Fabrisonic is concentrating on the embedding of electronics, other 3D printing developments come from companies and researchers working on developing capabilities to print ever-larger parts.

For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) had a printed tool in excess of six feet high. The tool had no functional purpose, said Andrzej Nycz, R&D associate, but was instead a demonstration of the growing capability of 3D printing.

The U.S. government is exploring other 3D printing developments. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) recently installed a second large-volume 3D printer. It can print two different materials on one object for materials research by ORNL scientists.

The next-generation printer is provided by Cincinnati Inc. which has printed automobiles, a house, a mold of a wind turbine blade, and a trim tool being used to help manufacture the wing for a new passenger jet. In fact, ORNL’s printing of the trim tool for The Boeing Co. resulted in the lab winning the title of the largest solid 3D printed object by Guinness World Records.

The new system will be able to 3D-print polymer material in sizes up to 13 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 8 feet tall, enabling taller structures than the existing big area additive manufacturing (BAMM) printer’s capacity of 20 feet x 8 feet x 6 feet.

Some companies are finding that for many applications, they can use plastics rather than metals in the printing process, said David Johnson, 3D printing business development manager for GSC, a consultancy service.

One example of this comes from Oak Ridge’s 3D-printed car shown at the recent Fabtech show. This year’s 3D printed car was a Shelby Cobra, featuring ABS carbon fiber resin printed on a Cincinnati BAMM printer over a 12-hour period.

The BAAM system extrudes a wide variety of thermoplastics and fiber reinforced thermoplastics to build parts layer by layer. SAAM uses the same process to produce prototypes and smaller parts, saving materials and providing a right-sized solution for additive applications.