When we think about manufacturing, we usually picture a process where raw materials are converted into a final product through various stages of production. However, there’s a new technology in town that is changing the game – additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing. Rather than cutting, drilling, or molding materials, 3D printing builds components layer by layer, creating products from the ground up. As we explore the world of additive manufacturing, we’ll see what different 3D printing methods are available, the benefits of each method, and their real-life applications.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a popular 3D printing method that melts and extrudes thermoplastic material to build parts layer by layer. The process starts with a computer-aided design (CAD) file, which guides the printer’s extruder to deposit melted material in precise geometric patterns. FDM printers use a range of materials such as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), Polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), and Polycarbonate (PC). FDM 3D printing is low-cost, making it a great option for prototyping, hobbyists, and home use.
The automotive and aerospace industries are taking advantage of FDM technology for rapid prototyping of components. For example, Ford uses FDM to create prototype parts for testing in just 24 hours, instead of waiting months for traditional manufacturing methods. Airbus uses FDM technology to manufacture components for their aircraft. The dashboard for their A350 airliner is made up of 100 different parts, each printed in just a few hours.
However, FDM has some limitations, such as low precision. The final product’s resolution and layer height may not be fine enough for some applications. Overhanging structures might require support structures, which can be difficult to remove once printing is complete.
Stereolithography (SLA) uses a UV laser to solidify a photosensitive polymer, layer by layer, into a precise 3D structure. SLA is a popular method for creating intricate and highly detailed parts. The final product’s resolution can even reach 25 microns, making it an ideal method for jewelry, dental molds, medical implants, and other precision objects.
German car manufacturer BMW uses SLA technology to create pre-production car parts such as taillights, mirror housings, and interior trim pieces. By using SLA, BMW can create prototypes much faster and reduces the wait time for the production of molds used in the traditional manufacturing process.
SLA technology has certain drawbacks; for example, it is expensive equipment and the photopolymer resin materials are pricey compared to other 3D printing materials. The chemicals used in the process are also hazardous and require proper handling.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) uses a laser to melt and fuse plastic, metal or ceramic powder together to create a product. The process begins by spreading a thin layer of the powdered material over a build platform. A high-powered laser then selectively melts areas of the powder, fusing the particles into a solid structure. The platform is lowered, another thin layer of material is added, and the process repeats.
SLS has some advantages over other 3D printing methods; one of them is the ability to manufacture objects using multiple materials simultaneously. SLS technology is used in aerospace, automotive, and medical equipment manufacturing. The healthcare industry uses SLS technology to produce implants such as hip and knee replacements.
The primary disadvantage of SLS technology is its cost. The machinery, as well as the materials, can be expensive, and this makes it unsuitable for home use. As the components are fused and then cooled, they may also be more prone to warping and cracking.
Direct Energy Deposition (DED)
Direct Energy Deposition (DED) uses high-energy beams such as lasers and electron beams to melt and deposit materials onto a substrate layer. DED is a technique used in a wide range of industrial applications such as aerospace, automotive, and defense. This technology is perfect for repairing damaged parts and producing large objects like aircraft parts.
DED technology can be used to fuse metals, thermoplastics, and ceramics to produce high-end components with superior mechanical properties. The aerospace industry has benefited greatly from DED technology to repair turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and other heat-resistant components.
DED technology has its drawbacks, among which are the high expenses in acquiring and maintaining the necessary equipment. The process can also require the use of protective equipment to shield operators and those nearby from the potentially harmful processes taking place.
Electronic Beam Melting (EBM)
Electronic Beam Melting (EBM) uses electron beams to melt and fuse powdered metal materials in a vacuum chamber to create finely detailed metal parts. The metal powder is placed in a powder bed and then selectively melted using an electron beam to fuse the powder atoms to create layers of the final product.
EBM technology is particularly useful in the aerospace and biomedical industries, where high-strength metal parts with complex geometries, such as turbine blades or hip implants, are required. The EBM process can create these parts quickly and at a lower cost compared to traditional production methods. The technique can also create unique geometry shapes that are challenging to make using traditional methods.
EBM technology is still in its early stages of development, with certain key challenges that need to be considered. For example, there are limited material choices, and the process can produce residual stress on the components, which can weaken them over time.
Jetting Technologies (PolyJet and MultiJet)
Jetting Technologies use inkjet printing technology to deposit and cure photopolymer resin layers that create precise 3D structures by stacking material on top of each other. Both PolyJet and MultiJet technologies use this technique, but they differ in their inkjet heads, materials, and curing processes.
PolyJet Technology is used primarily in the creation of complex parts where detail is key. PolyJet can handle multiple materials, including rubber-like and clear materials, allowing for the creation of prototypes that replicate the final product’s look and feel to an exceptional degree of accuracy. MultiJet Technology produces parts of high accuracy and speed, a key advantage being that it uses only a few thin layers to cover surfaces of wider x-y dimensions, which reduces print time by reducing the volume of material being deposited.
3D Systems, a well-known 3D printing company, uses PolyJet technology in medical applications such as dental implants or hearing aids. MultiJet technology is popular in the aerospace and automotive industries for both prototyping and the creation of final products such as dashboards and engine covers. Rapid production and reduced material wastage are other key advantages of Jetting Technologies.
Despite its advantages, Jetting technologies still have some drawbacks such as reduced durability and warping. These techniques are also only able to use a specific set of materials that are compatible with the inkjet head and curing process.
Sheet Lamination uses a variety of materials such as paper, plastics, and metal to build parts layer by layer. The process starts with a computer-aided design (CAD) file, which guides the printer’s cutter to cut or punch out specific shapes in sheets of material. These sheets are then stacked on top of each other and laminated to form a final product.
Sheet Lamination is often used in the creation of paper-based objects such as architecture models or cube puzzles. Still, it’s gaining momentum in metalworking for the production of precision metal parts as well. Arcam, one of the leading additive manufacturing companies worldwide, uses sheet lamination technology to create aerospace components made of titanium or other high-performance alloys, such as the Arcam A2X or Q10 metal printers.
The disadvantage of Sheet Lamination is its limited materials range and low accuracy of parts produced relative to other 3D printing methods. The layer adhesion and low-quality material strength may lead to lower loading capacity and structural failures.
Binder Jetting is a relatively new 3D printing technology that uses a printhead to deposit a liquid material onto a bed of dry particles. The printhead deposits a liquid binder material that fuses the powder particles together to form a 3D object.
Binder Jetting gives designers and artists freedom of creativity, enabling them to produce complex geometries at low cost and with fewer limitations on material options than other 3D printing methods. ExOne, a provider of industrial 3D printers, uses Binder Jetting technology in the creation of sand molds for foundry casting and in the creation of metal parts for machinery applications.
The disadvantage of Binder Jetting lies in the reduced resolution of printed objects and the materials cannot withstand high stress and impact after the printing process.
Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)
Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) is a 3D printing technology that combines the injection molding and traditional extrusion process together. The filament rather than melted thermoplastic material is pushed down through the printer’s extruder and heated, and then it is layered onto the build platform precisely like FDM printing.
FFF is an excellent 3D printing technique for printing affordable, yet functional objects such as fixtures, household items, and toys. Architects and builders are using it to place scaled-down models of structures during the project planning phase.
The disadvantage of FFF is in the resolutions printed parts, as they are less accurate than those made from Stereolithography and Selective Laser Sintering. Printed objects can be prone to warping, and the slow printing speed may lead to higher production time, especially with larger models.
Carbon Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) is a resin-based, 3D printing technology that uses UV curable materials to make production-quality end-use parts. DLS technology manufactures a part by projecting a digital light pattern onto a pool of liquid resin. The light hardens the resin in specific places to build parts one layer at a time. The technology is suitable for relatively large-scale commercial production.
Carbon DLS technology is used in automotive, aerospace, dental, and medical industries. Adidas uses Carbon DLS technology to create new shoe midsoles that are tough, light, and uniquely cushioned. In dentistry, Carbon’s DLS technology is used to create orthodontic retainers and aligners. In the aerospace industry, United Launch Alliance uses Carbon 3D printing for its next-generation rockets.
The primary drawback of Carbon DLS technology is that it is relatively expensive. The equipment cost and the material cost are a higher than many of the other 3D printing technologies presented, making it difficult for ordinary consumers to afford.
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing has revolutionized industrial production and opened the doors to innovative ideas in manufacturing and design. The wide range of 3D printing methods available offers designers, engineers, hobbyists, and inventors a wide range of manufacturing options with a wide range of materials to choose from. Industries such as healthcare, aerospace, and automobile manufacturing can already see the potential to reduce tooling and prototyping costs. At-home manufacturing enthusiasts and makers can indulge in affordable printing solutions that allow them to build all sorts of products.
The 3D printing capabilities are likely to improve as research increases and makes new materials, techniques, and possibilities available. Whatever a person’s manufacturing needs are, they will undoubtedly find the right manufacturing solution among these 3D printing possibilities. As 3D printing technology advances, it’s exciting to see where it will lead us in the future.
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