Sector races ahead

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In the market for over 25 years, 3D printing/ additive manufacturing is more than just a fad for hobbyists for making knickknacks or prototypes. The sector is set to take the industry by storm, with new technologies abounding.

3D/additive manufacturing is used for developing tooling. This technology allows the user to go from concept design to prototype/ production part in a fraction of the time it would take to develop conventional tooling.

Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm and authority on additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing worldwide, says the market for AM, consisting of all AM products and services worldwide, grew at a CAGR of 35.2% to US$4.1 billion in 2014.

It outlines this in its latest publication, Wohlers Report 2015, an annual publication that has been published for over 20 years.

The industry expanded by more than US$1 billion in 2014, with 49 manufacturers producing and selling industrial-grade AM machines. The CAGR over the past three years (2012–2014) was 33.8%, says the report.

Wohlers Associates reports that growth occurred in all segments of the diverse industry, including the low-cost “desktop” 3D printer segment. The use of industrial metal AM systems for demanding production applications in the aerospace and medical markets also grew strongly.

“The first Wohlers Report was published in April 1996,” said Terry Wohlers, Principal Consultant/ President of Wohlers Associates. “It was 40 pages in length and represented the first-ever published analysis of the industry worldwide. The AM industry represented a mere US$295 million in 1995.”

According to Wohlers, two companies stand out in terms of providing 3D printing services. These are: Stratasys and 3D Systems, with a market share of 18.3% and 15.9% respectively, in 2014.

Materials growth

The growth of the sector has seen a number of materials suppliers cashing in with material offerings ranging from expensive proprietary liquid resins and standard and colour formulations to fibre-reinforced ABS, PPS, PC, PLA and nylon.

Following this trend, US compounder Teknor Apex has introduced new compounds in its Terraloy PLA range of products.

The 3D-40040 compounds in the bioplastic series are formulated for extrusion into filament for use in 3D printers. Features include improved heat deflection temperature and impact strength compared with standard PLA, allowing for tighter tolerance control after annealing. Because of its heat resistance, filaments made from the compounds can be easily dried in an oven before processing, an important advantage because of the hygroscopic nature of the standard PLA polymer.

The PLA compounds are based on innovations by Teknor Apex that has overcome an inverse relationship in standard PLA between heat distortion temperature (HDT) and Izod impact strength, with up to two times the HDT and more than four times the impact strength of standard PLA resins. Previous work to enhance PLA performance beyond standard levels had generated resins with either higher HDT or greater impact strength, but not both in the same grade.

Another materials company that says it is expanding its application development focus in AM technology is Sabic Innovative Plastics.

It says its investment in several industrial and desktop printers, including the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) printer used to print the world’s first 3D-printed car, will help to facilitate process improvements in FDM and other extrusionbased printing processes.

In a recent project, Sabic says it used predictive engineering and 3D printing technology to create an integrated thermoplastic LED luminaire, highlighting the opportunity to reduce the number of parts by 84%, the total weight by 24% and assembly time by 65%, compared to a conventional metal luminaire.

At the NPE show in the US, Sabic also displayed at its booth the prototype of a 3D printed economy class aircraft seat, which it said was made with fewer than 15 components under license from Studio Gavari of Brunico, Italy, using the Ultem 9085 resin.

Another US firm APS Elastomers offers Zythane thermoplastic polyurethanes (TPUs) specifically suited for 3D printers. The pellets can be placed directly into the printer; replacing costlier filament spools. The TPUs boast durability, toughness, chemical resistance, flexibility and processing ease.

Yet, another resin, LNP Thermocomp compound, a carbon fibre-reinforced material, was used to print the much-talked about Local Motors’s Strati vehicle. Sabic also offers the Cycolac MG94 resin – an ABS material used by the maker community for fused filament fabrication (FFF) printing.

Applications increasing

Making launch vehicles for NASA, the Air Force and commercial satellites, US-based United Launch Alliance (ULA) knows a thing or two about critical applications. On the lower-end, its rockets cost US$165 million. And they must propel into space billion-dollar satellites weighing more than 28 tonnes.

Like other leading edge manufacturers using 3D printing, ULA progressed from prototyping to tooling and then to flight hardware production.

After acquiring two Fortus 900mc 3D Production Systems from Stratasys, ULA began the process of updating the Environmental Control System (ECS) duct on the Atlas V, which will launch with the new 3D component in 2016. The ECS duct is critical to the countdown sequence of a launch, delivering nitrogen to sensitive electronic components within the rocket booster.

The previous design for the ECS duct assembly contained 140 parts, but by modifying the design using FDM 3D printing, ULA consolidated the number of parts to only 16. This significantly reduces installation time and results in a 57% part-cost reduction.

ULA selected Stratasys’s Ultem 9085 FDM (fused deposition modelling) thermoplastic material to produce the parts. The company says it has done testing to show that it is capable of withstanding temperatures from cryogenic to extreme heat, and is tough enough to handle the vibration and stress of lift off and flight. ULA has ambitious plans to increase the quantity of 3D printed parts to over 100 on the next generation rocket.

Stratasys markets the patented FDM, PolyJet, and WDM 3D printing technologies that produce prototypes and manufacture goods directly from 3D CAD files or other 3D content. Stratasys subsidiaries include MakerBot and Solidscape, and the company operates the digital parts manufacturing service, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing.

For extruding filament rods

At the NPE show in the US, extrusion machinery maker Davis-Standard was running a profile line to process ABS 3D printer rod, to demonstrate 3D parts production. The demonstration placed emphasis on the advantages of 3D printing as a quick and inexpensive way to make prototypes out of plastic versus steel and other more expensive materials.

Davis-Standard teamed up with auxiliary equipment maker Conair’s extrusion development and testing laboratory that assembled the demonstration line.

Highlights of the line included a 50 mm Davis- Standard Super Blue extruder, DS-eTPC touchscreen HMI controller for coordinated line drive control, Conair 100 mobil drying and conveying system, a Conair GRH-1.0 extrusion die for filament/ rod production and a Conair HTMP series multipass cooling and sizing tank. It achieved output rates of 122 to 183 m/minute, which is three or four times greater than the typical production rate in the industry, say the companies.

3D metal printing

As an early adopter of 3D metal printing, US-based Linear Mold & Engineering has developed a niche of building conformal cooling lines to complement its mould manufacturing business. Linear says it has developed an expertise in the design and build of tooling inserts with conformal cooling channels, to meet demand from OEMs and Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers for reduced cycle times and better quality while controlling costs.

Conformal water lines address the limitations of traditional machining. This technology excels in cases in which part designs have varying wall thicknesses, tight dimensional tolerances and challenging mould geometry. This permits even cooling and prevents warp, sinks and other quality problems. Benefits of 3D metal printing and conformal cooling include greater flexibility in creating water lines, better access to hard-to-reach areas and significant cycletime reductions.

By getting water into tight spots, Linear says it is able to drastically improve part quality. Straight water lines are required when using conventional methods; consequently, the intersection of two straight-drilled water lines creates a low-turbulence area where sediment may build up. In this way, it can design complex water lines that eliminate these areas.

Future ahead

Design revolutions are also occurring in the electrical hardware, chemical industry and advanced materials based on AM technology. Advances in multi-material printing will require designers to think more effectively about the implementation of radical innovations/ideas using manufacturing techniques available in the AM industry.

The wearables segment is an area which is quickly growing, and will benefit from accelerated product development and from functional end use parts via the utilisation of AM technology. It will enable the development of customisable devices, innovative geometries and the rapid realisation of cost effective products.


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