Fasteners are literally what hold the world together. A fastener is essentially any hardware that holds two objects together, such as bolts, nuts, screws, and anchors. Fasteners are found in everything from toys to highways. Advances in both plastic and metal 3D printing are making it possible to print hardware for a multitude of industries.
Fasteners are usually manufactured using either machining techniques or forming (without cutting) techniques. Forming can be subdivided into hot forming and cold forming. Each of these manufacturing processes requires expensive machinery, multiple steps, significant labor costs, and is associated with challenging design limitations. 3D printing technologies can be utilized to overcome the shortcomings of conventional fixture manufacturing techniques.
Currently the printing of fasteners and other types of hardware is restricted to high-tech industries such as aerospace, biomedical, and robotics. This is mainly because it is not economical to print generic fasteners; however, many companies that are engaged in product design are using 3D printers to develop unique designs that enhance the functionality of fasteners and therefore the overall value of a product. Companies such as these may be eligible to take advantage of the Research and Development Tax Credit, which is available to stimulate innovation.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Companies in various industries, including firms that utilize 3D printing technologies, have been taking advantage of the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit since 1981. Firms can receive a credit of up to 13% 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.
Mechanical Fasteners vs. Adhesives
Most hard goods are comprised of multiple components and these components need to be fastened together in some capacity. One popular option to reduce costs is to use adhesives to bond parts together. In many cases, adhesives are able to create a stronger bond than mechanical fasteners but there are many disadvantages associated with using adhesives. For example, adhesives can be extremely toxic, which means safety equipment must be integrated into factories. In addition to being messy, adhesives are also associated with regulatory issues regarding disposing waste, as well as stringent standards for how adhesives are shipped.
The greatest challenge regarding the use of adhesives is that they compromise the serviceability of a product. Once sub components are chemically bonded together, it is permanent, meaning repairs become difficult if not impossible. The serviceability of a product is becoming a serious concern for manufactures, especially with the recent “Right to repair movement,” where consumers are trying to prevent manufactures from using glues to hold products together.
All of these factors are making the design of innovative fasteners a priority. Companies are currently exploring ways to design fasteners that make the assembly process of devices quicker, stronger, and more economical. Many concepts are being modeled using CAD software and then printed and tested to determine the efficacy of the design.
In particular, manufacturers are turning to 3D printers to manufacture fasteners/joints for aircraft and other high-end applications. It is now becoming possible to use 3D printers to develop fasteners and joints with new capabilities. Major aerospace manufacturer Airbus is working on new joint technology, called “hyper joining,” which promises to be six-and-a-half times stronger than a bonded joint and can absorb 80 times more energy.[i] The joint also provides substantially better aerodynamics, which will lead to reduced fuel costs.
3D printing is being used to revolutionize everyday fasteners such as Unthreaded Expandable Fasteners (UEF). This particular UED is intended for posterior cervical stabilization plates and was manufactured using selective laser melting. Posterior cervical stabilization plates are usually secured using screws, but for a variety of reasons, it is easy to misalign the screw, which can ultimately lead to nerve damage and screws backing out. The UED that was 3D printed was incorporated into the implant, which eliminates the alignment issue therefore reduces the risk of surgery. The test results of the new fixture design were very promising; Taylor and Francis reports “The prototype UEF demonstrated a 41% increase in failure force and a 60% reduction in failure force standard deviation compared to the screws.”[ii]
Currently, infrastructure in the United States is in disrepair. It can be expected that firms will look to 3D printing to reduce the cost of repairing and modernizing the nation’s bridges, highways, and rails. The labor required to repair existing structures and build new structures will be one of the heaviest costs in getting the United States’ infrastructure up to par. This means there will be major incentives to design new types of fasteners that will be more economical and will allow construction workers to put together assemblies in a shorter amount of time. 3D printing will help with the prototyping of this next generation of fasteners and will be used to produce production quality parts when a lower quality of parts is needed.
Fasteners are found in everything and presently there is a huge demand to develop high-end fasteners that simultaneously reduce cost while providing increased product value. 3D printing technologies are allowing firms to develop fasteners with functionalities that could not be achieved using conventional manufacturing methods. Companies that are engaged in the design of fasteners or are modifying the design of their products to accept new types of fasteners can use the federal Research and Development Tax Credit to offset their development costs and help fund their future R&D activities.
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[i] FASTENER UPDATE. (2014). Wire Journal International, 47(9), 24.
[ii] Oldakowski, M., Oldakowska, I., Kirk, T. B., Ford, C. T., Sercombe, T. B., Hardcastle, P., & Day, R. E. (2016). Pull-out strength comparison of a novel expanding fastener against an orthopaedic screw in an ovine vertebral body: an ex-vivo study. Journal Of Medical Engineering & Technology, 40(2), 43-51.
Charlie R. Goulding and Peter Saenz of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printed fasteners.