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Plastic laser sintering produces realistic textile structures

02 September 2010

A UK university is achieving outstanding results reproducing textile-like structures using a plastic laser sintering process. The EOS system is able to produce exact replicas of computer aided design models by selectively fusing successive, 100-micron layers of fine nylon powder

It is now almost impossible to distinguish between traditionally produced fabrics and the fine, cloth-like textile structures being produced at DeMontfort University, Leicester, using its new EOS Formiga P100 plastic laser sintering machine. The system can produce exact replicas of computer aided design models by selectively fusing successive, 100-micron layers of fine nylon powder – in this case, EOS PA2200 polyamide.

Guy Bingham, a senior lecturer in industrial design at the university, was instrumental in securing a capital research grant to purchase the system in August 2009. He already knew of the machine’s capabilities through previous research at Loughborough University while studying for his PhD.

Dr Bingham is now an active member of two research groups at DeMontfort University: Professor David Wimpenny’s Additive Manufacturing Technology Group (AMTG) and the New Product Development Centre (NPDC) led by reader Peter Ford. The industrial design activities span the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Art and Design, supporting not only research and development but also undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

The NPDC, affiliated to the Midlands Advisory Service, is in contact with around 250 SMEs in the Midlands, helping them to bring their products to market faster and more efficiently. Other activities involve the production of digital art in collaboration with Lionel Dean (Future Factories) and Professor Martin Reiser. It is also involved in the manufacture of futuristic structures that cannot be made by any method other than computer-aided generation and additive manufacturing techniques. Dr Bingham takes up the story:

“Laser-sintering of powders is undoubtedly the best additive manufacturing process for producing parts that are both highly-complex and functional. In my particular specialism, textile structures, it is the only way to increase the resolution and complexity of structures without breaking them after they come out of the machine. This is because laser sintered plastic parts do not require support structures, the removal of which can easily destroy the fine links that form the structure of our latest textiles."

He points out that self-supporting build strategies give designers unrivalled freedom when creating and building new designs. Whereas even a couple of years ago the norm was a relatively thick textile with a single repeating link-structure, a step-change in complexity has seen the emergence of structures down to 0.6 mm thick, comprising a core structure and a complicated network of sub-structures. The end result closely mimics lace. To take the designs further, metallic finishes are being applied to the plastic, such as nanocrystalline copper and silver plating.

Compact machine
The entry-level Formiga P100 has a compact footprint, stands 195cm high and has a build envelope of 200 x 250 x 330mm. It is able to build vertical walls of high surface quality, which historically has been problematical, while the fine focus diameter of the laser enables thin-wall structures to be created.  Dispensing and re-coating has been redesigned to increase product quality and reduce powder consumption.

Demonstrating the practicality of laser sintered plastic parts, the Formiga P 100 has no less than 23 components within its assembly that have been produced via this process, from the filling hopper to the switch cover.

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