Rapid Prototyping has come a long way since the technology was developed in the mid-1980s by Stratasys and 3D Systems and the market is now flooded with the hobbyist machines we know so well. The catalyst for this influx is attributed to the expiration of the US patent (5121329) which details the basics behind FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling). The 3D printer has now truly become personal.
3D printing technology has even made its first venture into space. On March 26 2016, the first 3D printer became a permanent feature of the ISS (International Space Station). Anyone who has followed NASA’s habitat challenge will also know about the plans to advance printing technology even further to the planets of our solar system; to literally mine indigenous materials and print the habitats of Mars’ first explorers. The technology is simple and scalable.
Back on Earth, the future of this technology for the manufacturing industry could see 3D printers as the end effectors of 6 axis industrial robots, removing the bed size limitation of current products and printing parts ‘in-place’ allowing much greater flexibility and much lower cost. With such flexibility, one can only imagine what inventions the engineer can create – 3D printers that make 3D printers, drones that can 3D print smaller drones, 3D printing of PCBs, self-repairing components - the opportunities are exciting and endless!
For the moment however, small scale FDM machines have their reliability issues, but the manufacturers are steadily improving on these traits. Vantage Power selected the Zortrax M200 (winner of 3D Hubs best of Plug and Play 2016) as its 3D printer of choice, and it has proven to be a fantastic instrument with which to manufacture plastic parts for prototype. The material selection is also improving; companies are gradually widening the printable materials (adding further to the flexibility of such a technique). ABS is no longer the only choice.
However, components are not commonly used for production without further modifications such as carbon fibre wrapping. Why? Well in most cases reliability, strength requirements, porosity, etc. make the use of this technology impossible. But Vantage Power have identified that in the right application this technology can offer significantly lower lead times, much lower cost, intellectual property protection and a reduced load on supply chain.
At Vantage Power, our team have used engineering basics not to redesign the FDM machines, but to engineer the environment (controlling humidity, temperature and using good material selection) to ensure the best possible characteristics of the final part to massively increase the quality and reliability.
The beauty of creating parts in this way is the ability to scale production capacity with minimal investment as rapidly as next day delivery. The future of 3D design is changing; virtual reality and 3D printing will change how components are designed forever. Anyone with access to a computer can envision anything they like in 3D and manufacture it the next day.
This is truly the beginning of 3D printing.