E3D Develops Tool-Changing 3D Printer Prototype and Motion System for Multimaterial 3D Printing


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When you hear about multitool 3D printers, it’s likely that ZMorph is the first company to come to your mind. But you might want to reset that dial, because E3D has been hard at work developing its own multitool 3D printer, complete with a tool-changer and the motion system to support it.

E3D has always been a fan of tool-changing 3D printers, but the company isn’t sure if the rest of the 3D printing industry feels the same way, which is why it wants the community’s opinion first.

“Tool-changing is an internal passion project here at E3D, but we’re not sure whether there is demand for a machine which is just the motion system and tool-changer,” the company wrote in a new blog post. “Please help us figure out whether to start building and selling this thing by filling in this survey so we can figure out what you, our customers, might want from it (even if you’re not looking to purchase this particular machine right now).”

3D printing with multiple materials can produce prints with complex geometries, different colors, and functional material combinations. But it can be difficult to do so reliably, as issues can crop up by putting two or more nozzles on one moving cartridge, mounting two carriages on the same 3D printer, or having one nozzle output more than one material. Tool-changing can resolve these issues – inactive nozzles won’t get in the way, it’s quicker to print with only the weight of one printhead moving at once, and no cross contamination of materials, as each one has its own nozzle.

“Tool-changing isn’t just another way to print in multi-colour, it’s a fundamental shift in capability and lays the foundation for future advances,” E3D wrote in its blog.

However, tool-changing 3D printing is not explored as often as other methods, and a major engineering challenge is the ability to pick up and put down tools accurately and reliably. As E3D puts it, a system that changes tools correctly is “a BIG DEAL.”

Most previous tool-changing 3D printers only offered two toolheads – E3D’s system has four, with the potential to add more later.

The company had several goals in mind:

  • Use dissimilar heads in one print – one for flexible 3D printing, one for a hardened-steel Volcano, and one for soluble supports
  • No human interaction during 3D printing
  • Extensible, foolproof system
  • Use more than two printheads in one print

E3D went through a lot of trial and error, and prototyped many systems that failed, including electromagnets and toggle locks for grabbing the toolheads, and tapers and pins for locating them.

The successful prototype, manufactured using DMLS technology, features an XY motion system mounted to a stiff plate of milled aluminium, along with kinematic coupling that offers high precision and reliable capture and self-aligning. A lightweight servo actuator powered grabber was a less expensive choice for toolhead grabbing, as well as “easy to actuate and control from existing electronics.”

The tool-changing 3D printer prototype was made out of steel, with gold plating “for speed but also for bling,” and has a Sprung Bayonet cam-lock, a permanent magnetic tool dock, and that excellent motion system we’ve heard about.

According to the blog, “We needed to eliminate variables, so with the the tool-changer being able to drop and pick tools with sub-5um repeatability it would be a total waste for this to go onto a substandard motion system. Aside from anything else, this is a research platform, so we felt that it was worth spending money to eliminate variables and have a rock solid foundation.”

The plate on extrusion features a lightweight, belt-driven XY system with motors in the back for easy wiring, and a long moving cross-bar that spans the full direction of the print bed, to open up more space for mounting tools. The gantry bar is a machined carbon fiber plate, and genuine Hiwin rails, bolted to the XY motion plate, provide smooth motion.

Precision-length extrusions on the corners and the Z axis backbone support the plate. The Z axis uses a large, pre-loaded linear rail, a rigid cantilever bed, and an integrated leadscrew motor with an anti-backlash nut.

Flexibles extruder

E3D’s prototype currently has a Volcano Bowden v6 and a normal Bowden v6, with a Titan mounted on the back panel, but they’re developing a few other tools, like a subtractive cutting head, a laser, a Titan Aero extruder, a Raspberry Pi camera head, and a better extruder for flexible filaments.

Tool configuration makes Z leveling easy, since the nozzles each have a separate offset and don’t have to be leveled with each other. Calibration is also easy – you’ll only need a pair of calipers and the Mk1 eyeball. E3D is using Simplify3D for the slicing software.

“We wanted this thing to be an open platform for whatever electronics the user wanted to put on it,” the blog states. “However, when it really came down to it, the only solution with enough extruder outputs and firmware that was truly scriptable and hackable was made by our great friends at Duet3D.”

If you’re interested in learning more about E3D’s tool-changing 3D printer, the company will be talking more about it at Midwest RepRap Festival (MRRF), which starts in Indiana this Friday. 3DPrint.com will also be attending MRRF and looks forward to the opportunity to see this and other open source technologies in person.

E3D is giving interested customers the opportunity to reserve a place in the queue for the 3D printer with a £100 deposit.

“If we don’t receive enough reservations to go ahead with production or you change your mind later on, then we will give you back 100% of your money. Simple, and no risk,” the blog explains.

“So if you really want one, fill in the survey, pay a deposit to get into the queue, and tell your friends to do the same. If enough people join you in doing so, then we’ll get to making these things.”

The estimated cost of the system, excluding electronics, should be around £1000-2000.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source/Images: E3D]


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