INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Commercial 3D Printing for Production Parts

Technology in the 3D printing space is advancing at the speed of light—everything from support structure software to material options and properties to ever improving processes. Some simply take these advancements as small steps in the overall progress of 3D printing, but these improvements are significant attributes that add value across industries and applications. 

Nylon handheld device 3D printed with SLS.

Medical and Health Care Development
Industries are adopting this technology for varying applications at very different paces. The health care industry has embraced nearly all forms of printing, but has particularly grasped onto direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). As we discussed last month, DMLS has a solid advantage over other 3D printing processes since it produces functional, production-quality parts from metal powder.  When plastics are concerned, selective laser sintering (SLS) is another additive manufacturing process with production in mind.

Product developers, designers and engineers in the medical and health care industries use many different types of 3D printing technologies, but why?

  • concept modeling and prototyping during early phases of product and device development
  • iterating design often to get parts in hand fast
  • reducing financial and design risks
  • building high-quality assemblies for end users to evaluate and influence human factor designs

Q&A: Eric Utley Discusses the Advantages of Stereolithography

Eric Utley, application specialist at Proto Labs.

We’ve been 3D printing for a while now, and our facility in Raleigh, North Carolina is packed with 3D printing specialists. For this installment of our Q&A, we spoke with one of those experts, Eric Utley, application specialist, for a chat about stereolithography and why product designers and engineers need it for prototyping.

To start off, can you give a quick overview of the stereolithography (SL) process?
Stereolithography uses UV light shot from a laser to cure a liquid thermoset resin called a photopolymer. In fact, even though 3D printing is often thought of as a new technology, SL has been around since the 1980s. But there’s a reason it has stuck around for so long — it has some key features that product designers need for prototypes.

What are some of those key features unique to SL?
I’d say the most important feature is that it creates a very high-resolution part with excellent surface finishes.

It can handle micro-sized features so it’s most suitable for parts that have a high level of detail. Most SL parts will have a nice, smooth finish and, although it’s typically used for prototyping, it leaves you with the feel of a final part — and looks go along way when sharing your new product design.

Another important benefit of SL is that it’s our most flexible process in terms of geometry it can handle, which gives designers a lot of freedom to work with.

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HP Selects Proto Labs to Test New 3D Printing Technology

HP Inc. made its announcement Tuesday morning at RAPID, the 3D printing trade show underway this week in Orlando. Here’s a glimpse of HP’s booth at RAPID.

Proto Labs has been selected by HP Inc. as a product testing site for the printing and PC giant’s new HP Multi Jet Fusion technology for industrial-grade 3D printing.

HP announced its new technology today at RAPID, a 3D printing and additive manufacturing trade show underway in Orlando, Florida through May 19. Proto Labs is at RAPID. You can find us at booth #443 to talk with a customer service engineer about our industrial-grade 3D printing services.

We’re excited to test drive this new technology that looks to be a dramatic leap ahead in 3D printing. We are looking forward to collaborating with HP on this new platform that promises to be faster and more economical than currently available 3D printing options.

Proto Labs’ staffers take a short photo break during RAPID underway all week in Orlando. From left, Joe Cretella, Greg Thompson, Rob Connelly and Thomas Davis. Visit Proto Labs at booth #443.

Proto Labs is one of several companies HP is working with as part of the company’s Early Customer Engagement Program, which conducts product testing and garners user feedback.

We were chosen because of our extensive experience as a prime user of industrial-grade 3D printing technology (also known as additive manufacturing) for our prototyping and low-volume manufacturing services.

READ THE FULL PRESS RELEASE ANNOUNCEMENT

Design Rules Revolution: DMLS Requires New Thought Process

By Heather Thompson, Senior Editor, Medical Design and Outsourcing

As product development speeds up, the design rules are changing. Nowhere is this more apparent when looking at the industrial 3D printing process of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). Direct metal laser sintering is an additive manufacturing technology with significant potential in the medical device space. But it requires a new way of thinking even at the early design phases. In many ways it represents the transition designers must face when looking at new technologies to make medical device design and manufacturing faster and more innovative. 

Internal channels that are impossible to machine are achievable with DMLS.

There are several benefits of DMLS explains Tommy Lynch, metals project manager at Proto Labs Inc., primarily that designers can prototype designs in unusual shapes at both time and cost savings. “DMLS is different from other 3D printing because you are using real metal. Many of these materials have been used for industrial applications for decades.”

Lynch says designers like the process because they can experiment with organic shapes that can’t be readily machined. For example, one intriguing opportunity is the ability to build implantable body parts that are custom fit to the recipient. “These implants would normally need to be delicately built on a 5-axis machine at a high expense,” he says. “Technology exists to scan a person’s actual bone structure, and print a direct DMLS replacement.”

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3D-Printed Molds vs. Aluminum Tooling

Industrial 3D printing has made a tremendous impact on the manufacturing world. Rapid prototypes are possible within a day, material selection continues to grow stronger and parts with un-manufacturable designs have found their happy place. Recently, some companies have begun using this important technology to produce injection molds.

Molds made with thermoplastics-based 3D printing are kind of like the plastic storage sheds some of us put in our back yards. They’re a little cheaper than metal sheds. They go up quickly and are fine under light loads. Pile too much snow on them, however, and they’ll collapse like a house of cards.

A 3D-printed Digital ABS mold built in an Objet Connex machine.

Still, printed molds have their place, and some shops have had good success with them. Proponents argue that 3D printing produces molds up to 90 percent faster and 70 percent cheaper than using traditional moldmaking processes. And while this may be true in some circumstances, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of printed plastic molds compared to those machined from metal.

Quality is king. 3D printing builds parts in layers. Because of this, printed parts can exhibit a stair-step effect on any angled surface or wall. Printed molds are no different, and require machining or sanding to remove these small, jagged edges. Holes smaller than 0.039 in. (1mm) must be drilled, larger holes reamed or bored, and threaded features tapped or milled. All of these secondary operations eliminate much of the “print-to-press” speed advantage associated with printed molds.

Size matters. Part volumes are limited to 10 cubic inches (164 cm3), roughly the size of a grapefruit. And although modern additive machines have impressive accuracy, they cannot compete with the machining centers and EDM equipment at Proto Labs, which routinely machine mold cavities to +/- 0.003 in. (0.076mm) and part volumes up to approximately 59 cubic inches, about six times larger than parts made with 3D printing.

The heat is on. To make material flow properly, injection molding requires very high temperatures. Aluminum and steel molds are routinely subjected to temperatures 500°F (260°C) or greater, especially when processing high-temperature plastics such as PEEK and PEI (Ultem). Aluminum tools can easily produce many thousands of parts, and can also serve as bridge tooling until a production mold is available. Molds produced with SL and similar 3D printing technologies use either photoreactive or thermoset resin, which is cured by ultraviolet or laser light respectively. These plastic molds, though relatively hard, break down fairly quickly when subjected to the demanding thermal cycles of injection molding. In fact, printed molds typically become ineffective within 100 shots of soft, hot plastic such as polyethylene or styrene, and may produce only a handful of parts from glass-filled polycarbonate and other tough thermoplastics.

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