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Technique uses ultrasonics to 3D-print fibre reinforced composites

20 January 2016

A team of engineers at the University of Bristol has developed a new type of 3D printing using ultrasonics that can print composite materials.

Engineers at the University of Bristol have developed a new type of 3D printing that can print composite materials used in products such as tennis rackets (image:Matt Sutton, Tom Llewellyn-Jones and Bruce Drinkwater)

The study, published in the journal, Smart Materials and Structures, creates and demonstrates a novel method in which ultrasonic waves are used to carefully position millions of tiny reinforcement fibres as part of the 3D printing process.  The fibres are formed into a microscopic reinforcement framework that gives the material strength. This microstructure is then set in place using a focused laser beam, which locally cures the epoxy resin and then prints the object.

To achieve this the research team mounted a switchable, focused laser module on the carriage of a standard three-axis 3D printing stage, above the new ultrasonic alignment apparatus.

“We have demonstrated that our ultrasonic system can be added cheaply to an off-the-shelf 3D printer, which then turns it into a composite printer,” says Tom Llewellyn-Jones, a PhD student in advanced composites who developed the system.

In the study, a print speed of 20mm/s was achieved, which is similar to conventional additive layer techniques. The researchers have now shown the ability to assemble a plane of fibres into a reinforcement framework. The precise orientation of the fibres can be controlled by switching the ultrasonic standing wave pattern mid-print.

This approach allows the realisation of complex fibrous architectures within a 3D printed object. The versatile nature of the ultrasonic manipulation technique also enables a wide-range of particle materials, shapes and sizes to be assembled, leading to the creation of a new generation of fibrous reinforced composites that can be 3D printed.

“Our work has shown the first example of 3D printing with real-time control over the distribution of an internal microstructure and it demonstrates the potential to produce rapid prototypes with complex microstructural arrangements," adds Professor Bruce Drinkwater from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol. "This orientation control gives us the ability to produce printed parts with tailored material properties, all without compromising the printing.”


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