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3D printing strengthens focus on design complexity

Author : Rüdiger Theobald is Marketing Director at Verbatim EMEA

07 November 2016

There is no doubt that 3D printing has the power to revolutionise the way products are designed and built.

Verbatim 3D filaments

Capable of creating complex shapes, layer by layer, the 3D printing approach can create objects that traditional manufacturing techniques cannot. Not only that but the whole manufacturing design and production process has been changed.

Firstly, achieving a prototype does not require expensive tooling. Upfront costs are significantly reduced. Small volume trial designs can be quickly prototyped and re-worked easily. In addition, the availability of a number of different 3D printing materials allows matching the design’s aesthetics, environmental constraints and design complexity to the material’s technical characteristics. One of the key aspects of adopting 3D printing technology is that product complexity is no longer a major cost factor. Product size and weight however are seen as challenges although the speed with which 3D printing technology and production volumes continue to evolve, they might not be a concern for long.

Already commonplace in many industries, such as engineering and architecture, 3D printing is now finding application in healthcare sectors such as dental, hip and knee replacements and prosthetics. Aerospace and automotive manufacturing companies have long been advocates of 3D printing, and for them the variety of available 3D printing materials has been key.

3D printing technology itself is available as desktop-based printers or larger stand-alone printers. The desktop marketplace has seen impressive growth, mainly from the maker and young engineering community but keen not to miss out on the capabilities on offer, professional engineers are starting to drive the demand for larger industrial 3D printing machines. For consumers several industry analysts believe that widespread adoption in the home is highly likely for a wide variety of different applications. These might include printing a replacement fridge door handle or a protective case for a new cellular phone.

One area where 3D printing is extensively used is in providing a low cost and rapid method of prototyping a design. By accelerating the whole design process, as mentioned above, the need for costly tooling and fine-tuning the initial manufacturing stages can be shortened.

The ability to experiment with different materials is also an important aspect of the prototyping process. Each filament material has distinct properties and a good understanding of them will aid the designer during the selection process. Verbatim, part of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Group, is an example of one of the companies investing heavily in the on-going innovation of 3D filaments. 

Some of the established filament options and examples of innovations are highlighted below but there are some basic requirements that designers need to take account of during the selection process. Whichever material you choose, it’s essential you use high-quality filament. To print accurately and consistently, your printer needs to pull through a consistent feed of material. Good-quality filaments guarantee the diameter of the product is within tight limits and the make-up of the material is consistent. Without this, the strength and appearance of your end result will likely suffer. A key thing to look for is the filament’s diameter accuracy: if you are working with 1.75mm diameter ABS or PLA, high-quality filament would offer variances of no more than 0.02mm, while with 2.85mm diameter ABS/PLA filament, this figure would be at most 0.03mm. One other thing to bear in mind is that many filament materials’ properties alter when exposed to moisture. If this happens, it can affect your printing results. Make sure you buy material in sealed containers with desiccant included, and store it correctly when you’re not using it.

ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)

Capable of being sanded and painted once cooled, petroleum-based ABS is low cost, tough, durable, and has the ability to withstand higher temperatures. 

As it cools, it contracts, so when using ABS the printbed needs to be kept at about 90°C. 

PLA (Polylactic acid)

Plant-based PLA is easier to work with compared to ABS and is more eco-friendly. However PLA can become malleable at 50°C so is less suitable for anything exposed to moderate heat. It is a strong material but can become brittle and warp. To overcome these characteristics, Verbatim, for example, includes additives in its PLA that also extends the service life.

Verbatim 3D printer

TPE (Thermoplastic elastymer)

Where both ABS and PLA are rigid, TPE filaments are soft and elastic. This is a relatively new area for 3D printing, and an interesting product is Verbatim’s PRIMALLOY, which brings new levels of flexibility and rubber-like elasticity. It’s strong, highly oil-, chemical- and heat-resistant, and can withstand repeated flexing. This type of filament suits products such as tool grips, seals, gaskets and tubing. A heated printbed of around 50°C is recommended.

PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)

Commonly used in the manufacture of plastic drink bottles, PET is becoming a popular filament material. It is recyclable, offers good layer adhesion and is relatively easy to work with.

PP (Polypropylene)

Traditionally used for plastic containers, a PP 3D filament is durable, flexible and transparent. It is ideal for use in heat- and chemical-resistant designs. 

A heating printbed of 100°C is recommended.

BVOH (Butenediol vinyl alcohol co-polymer)

Unlike the other filament materials discussed, BVOH is water-soluble. This means it lends itself to different, but at times complementary, use cases. For example, because it offers great adhesion to both ABS and PLA, you can use it to support these materials during printing, before dissolving it later. This enables you to create complex structures that wouldn’t be possible with ABS or PLA alone.

3D printing is changing the landscape of traditional design and manufacturing processes. In so doing, it also transforms the way that customers and suppliers can interact on a global scale.

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