Additive manufacturing processes are gradually increasing in their practical application, and engineers are starting to figure out where, when and how they could be the most useful.
Rather than looking to completely replace all conventional manufacturing techniques, Additive Manufacturing is being used selectively on projects where it can offer a real advantage. As an example, creating a large scale item such as a building or a plane wing is seen as not being advantageous, but manufacturing the small components could provide previously unavailable benefits.
The materials which can be used will play a significant part in determining how and where the process is used, and the role in plays in the future.
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Polymers are currently the most popular materials used in additive manufacturing
Industrial machines have the ability to use metals; this is not really an option for home printers because of the cost. The main metals which can be used are:
Bike Frame 3D printed in Titanium Alloy
In addition to using pure metals, compounds can also be used but different processes are generally required during the fusing.
Metal compounds are generally not wholly melted during the sintering process, but the particles merged. There is a distinction between these two processes as full melting means the metals all pool together and re-harden as a new compound. This provides waterproofing qualities not otherwise available.
As a general rule, metal alloys aren’t suitable for full melting because they have different melting points. Some metals which have particularly high melting points are also best sintered rather than fully melted too.
Thermoplastics, or polymers, are amongst the cheapest materials that can be used and are the typical content for commercial 3D printers being sold for home use.
But despite the widespread availability of these plastics, they still offer some very real benefits.
The main thermoplastics being used are:
Acrylonitile butadiene styrene (ABS)
Polylactic acid (PLA)
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)
ABS is the type of polymer which is the most widespread and can most easily be described as the type of plastic used for making Lego bricks. PLA is however starting to rise in popularity because of its flexibility, being available in both rigid and soft finishes. There’s a third type of PLA which provides a rubbery finish, remaining flexible.
PVA is used as a material to create supports within the Additive Manufacturing process, and is entirely dissolvable. These supports can be removed once the final design is complete and being soluble can just be washed away.
Polycarbonate is a material which is still in development as it requires a high-temperature nozzle but holds possibilities for the future.
The additive manufacturing process allows the combination of plastics with carbon fiber. This has the advantage of strengthening the product without adding any weight to the design.
Polymers and metals are the most common types of material used and can be used to produce moulds and functioning components. They are particularly efficient for low-volume manufacturing and minimise waste.
There are however possibilities for other materials to be used in additive manufacturing, even though their use may not be as widespread.
Medical and biochemical materials
As well as industrial manufacturing uses, there’s the possibility that additive manufacturing processes could be used in the medical field too.
Bio-ink can be created from stem cells, which are then printed and layered like other materials, forming new tissue. Exciting results have been created from this technology, with bladders, blood vessels and kidney parts all having successfully been “printed”.
It’s not just soft tissue that can be created in this way; new bone has successfully been grown too. By printing out a compound of a material made from calcium phosphate, silicon and zinc and combining this with bone cells, new bone growth was stimulated. The printed material was later dissolved, leaving just the new bone.
The pharmaceutical industry is starting to become more interested in the ability to use additive manufacturing to make drugs and medications more cheaply. At present this is just a fledgling interest and not a developed process in widespread use.
Ground down into a powder so it can be layered thinly as required, glass can be used in Additive Manufacturing processes. An adhesive bond is required as the cross section of the design is created and it requires baking before use.
A rather more surprising entrant to this market is chocolate, with baking and cooking set to be revolutionised by this technology. With an increasingly competitive market, molecular gastronomy turns up the heat with the ability to create ever more complex shapes and designs.
Although the technology has been around for more than 30 years, it’s only recently that the materials suitable for use and their possible functions has really expanded. There are an almost limitless number of industries that could benefit from incorporating Additive Manufacturing into the processes, changing the face of what’s possible.
To discuss the future of your additive manufacturing call us today on +44 (0) 1489 779 696 or complete our enquiry form.