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Additive is the answer

Author : Matthew Aldridge, igus’ managing director

04 November 2017

3D printing has moved from the margins to the mainstream and it is design and manufacturing companies that are really starting to benefit from the unique characteristics of additive technologies, enabling them to reduce the time it takes to bring products to market, says Matthew Aldridge, igus’ managing director.

For many years, 3D printing was viewed as something of a technological curiosity. The nature of additive manufacturing was so different to traditional subtractive technologies that it quickly caught the public’s imagination. 3D printing was everywhere: on TV, at exhibitions, in the national press. But after the initial fascination fell away, one primary question was being asked: 3D printing might represent a new way of making products, but when would it ever be used?

Indeed, 3D printing has suffered several false starts. Initially, the buzz was around the consumer sector. Millions of 3D models would be available on the internet, allowing home-users to replicate a plethora of parts. But predictions of a world where every home would be using the technology to print components such as mobile phone cases failed to come to fruition. In many cases, the unreliability of cheap, mass-produced consumer machines meant that the technology failed to live up to expectations – and consumer interested waned.

Gradually, over time, as the reliability of 3D printers improved and the quality of parts being produced got much better, it was the industrial sector that started to look at the true potential of additive manufacturing, with companies recognising that it could make quite an impact on product development processes. The ability to print prototypes directly from CAD data held the potential of fast, frequent revisions based on real-world testing and feedback. 3D printing offered manufacturers the chance to make quick, incremental improvements to their products, which would enable them to drive out inefficiencies and shorten time to market. 

These days, 3D printing is a familiar process for rapid prototyping. And now, the development of more advanced engineering materials with which to print is starting to see it develop into a credible fabrication technique. Manufacturers can now access engineering plastics for their 3D printing, whether they want to print themselves or order parts from a supplier who offers printing as a service. They can produce prototypes in their design phase, real world test samples, or low volume, precision finished items – even 3D printed tools and injection moulds. Indeed, more and more requirements can be serviced using 3D printing and additive manufacturing fabrication techniques as more capable materials are developed. 

Igus has been offering advanced engineering plastic filament for printing of real functioning prototypes for several years now. The iglidur filament works with any 3D printer that uses acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic filament, however printed iglidur parts are up to 50 times more resistant to wear and tear. More recently igus introduced iglidur powders for selective laser sintering (SLS) printing. One SLS material in particular is now being used for the production of custom plastic gearwheels, giving excellent wear results when compared with traditional plastic gears.

The more hard-wearing nature of these 3D printed parts has attracted interest from engineers wishing to create structurally robust prototypes or small batch components for test in real-world situations. Being able to create real, useable components allows designers far more freedom in the creation of shapes for workable parts used in motion applications, such as in bearing locations. Alternatively, if a replacement bearing is required urgently, customers can download the appropriate design file from the igus website and print the part straightaway. For those who don’t have a 3D printer, a print service is also offered, enabling customers to upload the design file and order the part.

The next step up the 3D print ladder is producing 3D printed mould tools, which can be used to manufacture injection-moulded parts. This new service means designers can now produce small batches of parts, choose from a smorgasbord of 50 iglidur plastics, including materials for high load, food contact or high temperature applications.

3D printing mould tools brings many advantages, particularly around cost efficiency and speed of production. Using steel for such a process is expensive and technically laborious and only really suited for high-volume production. However, special tribo solutions can be produced with a 3D printed mould tool within 2 to 5 days, with an estimated cost saving of up to 80 percent.

Depending on the material chosen for injection moulding, the mould is either stereolithography or selective laser sintering printed and then used immediately in the injection-moulding machine. Thus, parts are ready for shipment within a few days. The material structure of the printed injection mould ensures that it can withstand the high temperatures during injection moulding, which from our experience means that one mould can produce prototypes and small batches up to 500 pieces. 

It's clear, then, that 3D printing has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Indeed, according to research group Markets and Markets, the adoption curve is pointing sharply upwards, with the global 3D printing sector expected to reach a staggering £30.19 billion by 2022, at an annual compound growth rate of 28.5 percent between now and 2022. This sort of rapid expansion shows that 3D printing is no longer a technical curiosity. It has become an invaluable production tool for innovative companies and will continue to become an increasingly important means of streamlining product development processes. 

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