With the AMUG Conference and Rapid+TCT under our belt, the AM industry has already covered a lot of ground in 2023. So far this year, we’ve seen an uptake in interest across all sectors on how 3D printing technology can boost production, transform business models, and support sustainable manufacturing. Aerospace, defense, and medical are still lead adopters, but more automotive, tool-making, fluid power, and robotics companies are exploring the benefits beyond prototyping and tinkering.
Companies such as TE Connectivity are expanding 3D printing capabilities to produce connectors faster and create components that are too complex for machining or molding. The company recently added 3D Systems’ Figure 4 technology and new UL-certified Figure 4 photopolymer material to produce rugged industrial products for the first time, targeted at appliances, cellular, and data-center applications.
As another example, Signicast uses 3D printing to produce monolithic ceramic shell molds with integrated internal cores that arrive at the foundry “ready for pouring.” DDM System’s Digital Foundry technology produces the precision investment castings of complex engineered components without upfront investment in hard tooling or patterns.
For companies unsure if their parts are additively manufacturable, service bureaus are providing more digital tools as preliminary checks to save time and costs. For example, Protolabs launched an online Design for Manufacturability (DFM) analysis tool that gives guidance in seconds to ensure a part is suitable for AM before committing to production.
It’s clear that more manufacturers want to evolve beyond prototyping and gear up for production. However, the question of how, where, and when to scale AM processes remains.
New materials continue emerging for various applications, and customer inquiries prompt engineers to develop solutions that prove useful in other contexts. Extreme temperatures, flame retardant, flexible, and biodegradable are common material requirements as of late.
At the AMUG Conference in March, Formlabs showcased its new TPU 90A Powder formulated for strong, functional, skin-safe parts with high tear strength and elongation properties. By leveraging this material, engineers and manufacturers can bridge the gap between manufacturing stages, produce fully functional prototypes, manufacturing aids, and end-use parts and take complete control of their supply chains.
Essentium came out with a new cold-temperature polycarbonate material called Essentium Altitude that can withstand temperatures as low as -60° C without cracking. The material can be used on any open-sourced 3D printer and for any application requiring extreme cold, ultraviolet, and flame resistance, such as high-altitude drones, transformer housings, and electrical line protectors.
To satisfy biodegradability requirements, the new Jabil PLA 3110P material is a polylactic acid biopolymer that can advance sustainability initiatives while providing a low-carbon alternative to nylon-based materials for powder-bed fusion processes.
Speaking of processes, the push for automated and integrated systems is increasing so that production can run smoothly around the clock with less oversight or intervention. Solutions are expanding beyond the scope of 3D printers and consider what the modern factory looks like — a mix of humans and robots co-existing and working together to maintain uptime. New AM technologies are designed to play nice with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), cobots, and devices from other suppliers to make AM integration into any manufacturing process easier and future-focused.
At Rapid+TCT 2023, companies such as HP announced new automation solutions that simplify workflow, increase productivity and quality, and reduce costs. HP’s new powder-handling system provides closed-loop material processing that minimizes manual labor and improves traceability. Its automation accessory also minimizes idle time between jobs and affords continuous operation when the shop’s closed on nights and weekends.
With the advantages of AM’s speed and flexibility, digital connectivity is a natural progression and icing on the cake. For example, Materialise recently updated its Magics 3D Print Suite with more digital connectivity and traceability features. Integrating CO-AM, Materialise Machine Manager, and Workflow Automation gives manufacturers more cloud-based collaboration and quality control insights.
Additionally, according to Materialise’s recent AM survey, persistent supply chain and labor challenges continue driving manufacturers toward 3D printing as part of their automation and digital transformation efforts.
Yet all this recapping barely scratches the surface of what AM professionals have achieved so far this year. With dozens of events scheduled between the next big international trade shows, we’re looking forward to more innovations and participating in AM’s evolution.