The 3D printing industry uses a lot of thermoplastics, and you could be forgiven for confusing thermoplastics with thermoset plastics. A thermoset plastic is a polymer or resin that, once cured, remains in a solid state – unlike a thermoplastic, which can be melted down again. Until now, thermosets generally could not be 3D printed, at least not on a large scale, but there’s a first time for everything. Magnum Venus Products (MVP), in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has installed the first commercially available medium/large-scale thermoset 3D printer at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility this week.

This is a big deal for the 3D printing industry because it has been badly in need of a way to 3D print large molds and structures that will hold up under industrial conditions.

“Thanks to this innovation, research and development managers will be able to prototype faster and bring products to market faster,” said Bob Vanderhoff, President and CEO of Magnum Venus Products. “Procurement departments will also enjoy shortened lead time on crucial molds – allowing for rapid deployment. This was made possible through ORNL slicing software that allows the integration of multivariate print process parameters.”

The new Thermobot 3D printer features a state-of-the-art gantry system tailored to the application and was developed in response to growth in 3D printing, a market demand for hyper-customization and the need for advanced manufacturing automation.

“The ability to print thermosets on a large-scale opens new possibilities with respect to the performance and integrity of printed structures,” said Vlastimil Kunc, ORNL lead for polymer materials development.

The April 5 ribbon cutting for the Thermobot 3D printer at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. [Image: Innovation Valley via Twitter]

The thermoset 3D printer has a roll-in/roll-out bed configuration that greatly increases 3D printing’s productivity. This configuration allows the 3D printer to operate while pre- and post-processing operations are performed on an additional print bed outside of the printer. Benefits include the ability to rapidly prototype and rapidly build molds, as well as the ability to experiment with a brand new kind of material.

Specifications as described by MVP include:

  • Multi-axis print head and coordinated control of other print process parameters
  • Build volume: 16’ x 8’ x 42’’
  • Prints up to 50” per second (depending on material used)
  • Deposition rate ≥ 10 lbs./hr.
  • Resolution of ≤ 6mm and larger resolution is possible
  • Build platform with 1,000 lb. capacity
  • Repeatability = ±0.005”
  • Large footprint easily scaled to multiple sizes

(L to R) Bob Vanderhoff, Craig Blue and Moe Khaleel [Image: Business Wire]

To reiterate, the difference between thermosets and thermoplastics is that once a thermoset is cured, it’s set – for good. Even thermoplastics with high heat tolerances can eventually be melted down into their original state, which makes them good for recycling but not great for extremely high temperature applications like molds into which molten material is poured. Thermosets will remain solid and hold their shape, no matter what. ORNL and Magnum Venus Products’ medium/large-scale thermoset 3D printer means that brand new opportunities will be opened up for the 3D printing industry.

ORNL contributed to the project through a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Technology Transitions Technology Commercialization Fund project managed by the Advanced Manufacturing Office in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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