The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), an organization based out of the University of Sheffield, has earned its status as a world leader in research into advanced manufacturing technology, including 3D printing. Founded in 2001, the AMRC has been responsible for numerous breakthroughs in the field, and now it has chalked up another. The center has been working with embedding electronics into 3D printed items for some time now, but its new hybrid 3D printing approach is the most advanced yet.
The process, which was developed by the center’s Design and Prototyping Group, is called THREAD, and it allows multiple electrical, optical and structural elements to be woven directly into components as they’re being 3D printed. Details of how the process works are being kept largely under wraps at the moment as a patent is still pending, but THREAD enables unbroken connectivity and other functions to pass through all three axes of a 3D printed object, without affecting build time.
“THREAD has scope to simultaneously add multiple industry-recognised threads of differing materials into one component, giving the component additional functions. This will open AM up to a greater variety of uses,” said Mark Cocking, AMRC Development Engineer and inventor of the process. “The development of this process is a potential game-changer. It could be used across many sectors such as medical, aerospace and automotive; where weight and size of components is critical or where components would benefit from integrated data transfer and the protection of sealed connective tracks…THREAD has potential to be developed as an add-on technology for existing AM platforms and also incorporated into next generation AM technologies.”
THREAD has been tested so far with polymer 3D printing, but the AMRC states that the technology can be used across multiple additive manufacturing platforms. The applications of THREAD stretch across multiple industries to include medical devices, consumer products, and other items in which electronics would typically be attached to the outside of the component.
According to Cocking, the process allows for threads and potentially even tubes of differing materials such as copper, steel and fiber optics to be encapsulated in the same 3D printed item, meaning that sensitive devices could be made much more durable. Hiding conductive or other sensitive material inside an object, for instance, instead of attaching it to the outside, lessens or removes risk of contamination and provides protection against impact or other damage.
“We see THREAD transforming the functionality of additively manufactured components,” said Chris Iveson, who is leading the effort to commercialize the technology. “Feedback from our contacts in various industries indicates a real need for this capability, with new potential applications being discussed daily. This is a great example of the AMRC using its unique expertise to solve real industry problems.”
Until a patent is granted, it’s likely that further details won’t be released about how THREAD works, but we’re looking forward to learning more about it when that time comes. Embedded electronics aren’t brand new, but they often require time-consuming processes that involve stopping and restarting print jobs; the seamlessness and speed that the AMRC claims THREAD is capable of, as well as its ability to incorporate multiple materials, is intriguing.
The AMRC is continuing to develop THREAD further for different commercial markets; 3D printer manufacturers or users of industrial 3D printing processes are invited to contact Mark Cocking at [email protected] or 0114 222 6244. Discuss in the AMRC forum at 3DPB.com.
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