M. Holland Market Manager Todd Waddle attended the RAPID + TCT conference and expo in Pittsburgh last month, where he heard from some of the top business leaders, innovators and technology companies in the fast-emerging additive manufacturing industry, also known as 3D printing.

Waddle came away encouraged and inspired by the pace of progress for additive manufacturing technology, where solid three-dimensional objects are built from a digital model without molding, bending or assembling. The most common additive manufacturing process involves building thin layers of plastic or metal material into a three-dimensional shape.

Widespread adoption has been limited by several factors, including relatively slow print speeds, the structural integrity of the layering process, the high cost of printers, and limited material options. In recent years, however, many of these constraints are being lifted as 20-year patents expire and powerful open source architecture helps spur growth and progress.

Are we reaching a tipping point that takes additive manufacturing to the mainstream?

Direct Pellet Extrusion

As a plastic resin distributor, Waddle is particularly interested in direct pellet extrusion technology that enables additive manufacturing directly from pelletized polymers. Until recently, material had to be extruded into spools of filament, ground into a powder, or converted to a liquid in order to be utilized in additive manufacturing applications.

Now, direct pellet extrusion makes additive manufacturing dramatically faster, costs less, and is generally easier to deal with. It also paves the way for utilization of a broader range of thermoplastic resins that couldn’t be converted into filament, powder or liquid. Today, almost any polymer that is extrudable can be utilized in 3D printers.

Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)
Developed by startup company Carbon3D, CLIP uses photo polymerization to grow a complex part from a liquid pool of resin using an ultraviolet light beam. The process is up to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printers and, because the process is continuous, it delivers significantly better part integrity than the layering process.

BAAM and LSAM

There are major advances in big area additive manufacturing (BAAM) and large scale additive manufacturing (LSAM), led by companies like Strangpresse, Thermwood, Titan Robotics and Cincinnati Inc., the latter of which famously 3D printed (and drove) a car at a trade show in 2014. These technology leaders are designing high performance thermoplastics extruders that create large and one-off components to a near-net shape dimension for industries including automotive, marine, aerospace and aviation, to name a few.

In BAAM and LSAM, a part is printed layer upon layer to just larger than the final size, then honed down to its desired finished size and shape using a router tool. The 3D printers have two motion-controlled gantries or robots: a 3D printing gantry, and a trim gantry with a router that cuts down the component to its finished size. The entire process operates in free space without any molds or tooling and takes place on one or two machines that can be operated via the cloud by a single person.

Similar to injection molding, where a vacuum transports pellets to the machine, plastic resin in pellet form is transported via robotic arm to the extruder. These high performance, high speed machines also have nozzles that cleanly and precisely start and stop printing without any drips or drools, a challenge only recently resolved.

Generative Design is Changing the Game

The advent of generative design software developed by Autodesk is advancing the industry. Generative design introduces a different way of thinking that helps designers and engineers create parts to solve a particular problem. It focuses not on the manufacturing or mold making, but rather on the part’s purpose and the problem it solves.

With generative design, you input design goals into a software application, along with parameters like materials, manufacturing method and cost. The software uses cloud computing and algorithms to explore thousands of possible solutions and offer the best solution options. The computer, not the human, comes up with the best solution.

It’s an approach that’s changing the definition of manufacturing. It’s no longer one-size-fits-all, but rather “mass customization.” Production is moving away from high volume and going toward high complexity/low volume, a paradigm shift that paves the way for never-before imagined applications. And it’s making it possible to produce forms that have until now been impossible to create using traditional manufacturing methods.

Individually, each of these advances — direct pellet extrusion, CLIP, BAAM/LSAM and generative design — are game changers. Collectively, they just might be enough to propel additive manufacturing to the mainstream.


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