Getting to grips with structured surface textures

By Protolabs

In the ever-evolving world of product design and engineering, the quest for unique textures and finishes has never been more pronounced. Traditional manufacturing methods often impose limitations on achieving intricate patterns and complex designs. However, advanced 3D printing technologies like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) have opened up possibilities for design engineers, introducing new surface texturing options for 3D printed parts.

Beyond scratching the surface

Firstly, why are surface textures so important to design engineers? Control over surface finish is paramount to design engineers, offering many opportunities that significantly impact a product's functionality, aesthetics, and overall success.

Enhanced Aesthetics and Branding:
First Impressions Matter! Surface finish is one of the first things users notice about a product. By controlling surface finish structures, design engineers can create visually appealing and aesthetically pleasing products that align with the brand image.

Improved Ergonomics and Functionality:
The surface finish plays a critical role in ergonomics for products with handles or grips. Design engineers can optimise the surface texture to provide a comfortable and secure grip, enhancing the overall usability and functionality of the product.

Customisation for Diverse Applications:
With the growing trend of mass customisation, adaptability across industries is critical, as different industries and applications have unique requirements. Controlling surface finish structures allows design engineers to customise products for specific needs, ensuring compatibility and effectiveness across diverse applications, enabling design engineers to cater to niche markets and opening up new business opportunities.

Optimised Manufacturing Processes:
A key consideration for any engineer is production efficiency. Understanding and controlling surface finish structures enables design engineers to optimise manufacturing processes. This enhances efficiency and ensures that the final product meets the desired quality standards.

Freedom for Creative Expression:
When creating innovative designs, surface finishes are often the open door to creative freedom. Design engineers can experiment with textures, patterns, and finishes to bring innovative designs to life, pushing the boundaries of what's possible in product aesthetics.

Technological Advancements in Materials:
As material science evolves, so do the possibilities for surface finishes. Design engineers can leverage advancements in materials to achieve cutting-edge surface textures and structures, staying at the forefront of innovation.

3D printed part with leather look surface finish

How 3D printing provides control

3D printing is an additive process, meaning parts are produced layer by layer, providing ultimate control over the entire part. One of the standout features of 3D printing is the ability to create seamless and repeatable patterns that can be applied exclusively to the surface layer in the CAD file. This opens up opportunities for designers seeking to integrate intricate textures seamlessly into their products.

At Protolabs, when producing parts via SLS or MJF, our experts translate images of a pattern into black-and-white contrast images, which specify the dimensions for the production process to achieve the desired surface structure. By applying the provided geometry to the desired surface, the contrasting black and white elements are strategically used to create varying depths, resulting in a visually stunning and tactile pattern.

The process involves transforming the specified pattern into an STL file, which then seamlessly transitions into the production phase. This streamlined approach ensures the final product boasts a flawless, uninterrupted pattern, eliminating any visible joins or seams. This is particularly advantageous for designers who prioritise aesthetics and seek a professional, polished finish for their end-use parts. There are virtually no limits to the imagination of designers here. A key advantage is that no further post-processing steps are required to achieve the desired surface feel and appearance. This creates the unique opportunity to structure new kinds of surfaces as well as to replicate structures that already exist, like leather.