Foam is used in an endless array of product applications. It is an essential component in a large number of industries, including automotive, aerospace, electronics, sports, biomedical and packaging. Now it can be 3D printed as well. 3D printing offers benefits that traditional manufacturing techniques lack such as the ability to manufacture unique or custom components in low volumes and for low cost. 3D printers are capable of producing quality products as well. In fact, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) material scientists recently researched 3D printing foam properties and found that it actually works better than traditionally manufactured foam products in terms of durability and long-term mechanical performance. Given the potential to seriously disrupt manufacturing, many companies and organizations around the nation have been exploring the potential for 3D printing with foam. Initiatives such as this present a good opportunity for Research and Development tax incentives.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Automotive

The automotive manufacturing industry has been a quick adapter of 3D printing. 3D printers are commonly used in high performance shops to create prototypes, hoses, fuel injectors, jigs and tools. They can be used to print foam products as well. Many automobile components are entirely or at least partially composed of foam. 3D printers can be used to manufacture a range of foam sealants, air and fluid filters, insulators, shock absorption cushions, trunk and door-jam liners, panel fillers and more.

Aerospace

Foam is commonly used in the aerospace industry as well. NASA recently expressed interest in the use of 3D printed foam and offered the University of West Virginia $100,000 to research the material. NASA envisions utilizing 3D printed foam in a wide array of applications such as solar cells, batteries and radiation shielding.

Electronics

Foam is commonly used in the electronics industry to create protective barriers for delicate components. It is also the most common material used for manufacturing electronic speakers, and headphones. Researchers are exploring the use of 3D printers in this context as well. Nanotechnologists from Rice University and China’s Tianjin University recently researched the use of 3D printers to create centimeter-sized blocks of graphene foam which they envision to eventually be used in nanoelectronics applications.

Sports

Foam is commonly used in one aspect or another in almost every US sport. Football helmets, golf balls, basketball pole liners, catcher’s equipment and hockey gloves are all made using foam. 3D printed foam may perform better than traditionally manufactured foam as well. As helmets age, they lose their protective ability. This presents a hazard to users who may not realize the danger. LLNL in Livermore, California and Autodesk, the multi-national software Company in Mill Valley, California recently teamed up to research 3D printing to create a new generation of helmets. They compared 3D printed and traditionally manufactured foam products and found that the 3D printed material maintained their characteristics over time better than the traditionally manufactured products.

Biomedical

One commonly researched use of 3D printed foams is in the biomedical industry. In this area researchers are exploring the use of 3D printers to create titanium foam products. This titanium foam is commonly used to create bone grafts. The reason 3D printers are so beneficial in this area is because no two bone grafts are identical. Thus, traditional manufacturing techniques which are best suited for reproduction in mass quantities are rendered useless. With 3D printing, however, manufacturers can take precise measurements and create individually tailored grafts one at a time in an economically feasible manner.

Packaging

Foam is one of the most common materials used in the packaging industry. The main benefit is its ability to keep products safe during transit and delivery. The creation of a custom and uniquely shaped foam packaging product, however, traditionally requires a large investment in injection molding equipment. This does not bode well for small production runs which may be rejected in light of the required capital investment. 3D printing, however, delivers the ability to customize quickly and inexpensively without worrying about minimum production runs. In addition, it allows manufacturers to print on demand. With the ability to 3D print foam packaging, manufacturers can now deliver small production runs, deliver them quickly and ship them safely.

Conclusion

Foam is used in numerous everyday and scientific applications. It can be 3D printed as well. In fact, new research shows that 3D printed foam may perform better in terms of durability and long-term performance. Research and Development tax credits are available for companies that experiment with foam 3D print manufacturing.

 


Charles Goulding and Michael Wilshere of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing applications with foam

 





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