4 Ways Ceramic 3D Printing Technologies Are Paving the Way for the Future

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Ceramic 3D printing has always been a popular application of additive manufacturing, yet still on the relative margins when compared to thermoplastics or metals. Naturally, metals and plastics are quite prominent in our daily lives, so it’s no wonder they take up more of the additive manufacturing world as well. Ceramics, while a large part of much of our day-to-day appliances, are less often additively manufactured. Still, ceramic 3D printing technologies are increasing in popularity and can be quite impressive, as recent research projects have proven.

Due to some of the unique properties that ceramic materials, like clays or silicon compounds, provide, 3D printing technological components can be quite fruitful. Such technologies can have important medical applications, electrical properties or abilities to strengthen certain types of waveforms, for example. In this article, we’ll look at four incredible examples of such applications from across different industries.

3D Printed Electro-Ceramic Energy Devices

An example SOEC – Image via Journal of Material Chemistry (Pesce; Hornes; Nunes, et. al)

Ceramics can be a helpful material to compose various types of electrolyte-supported solid oxide cells. Traditionally, such SOECs (solid oxide electrolyser cells) have certain limitations in terms of physical shape and form. However, 3D printing allows designers to circumvent such hindrances and create new shapes that offer easy, custom energy solutions. Just as the image above shows, the cell on the right (developed by researchers at the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research) offers a corrugated form that allows for an increase of 57% in performance in fuel cell and co-electrolysis modes.

This mode of production isn’t just good at creating this one shape, but rather offers a model for the mass customization, rapid prototyping and the development of multiple different configurations that could be beneficial for energy saving devices. It was a radically new style of design that wouldn’t have been possible without additive manufacturing and its ability to create unconventional shapes quickly and easily.

Similarly, another test showed that SLA printing can create these corrugated structures, improving efficiency in both fuel cells and hydrolysis cells. The production on these experiments was done using the CERAMAKER by 3DCeram. The researchers anticipate a strong impact of these designs in “future generations of solid oxide cells and, more generally, in any solid-state energy conversion or storage devices”.

3D Printed Ceramic Medical Implants

Image courtesy of Lithoz.

While all forms of 3D printing and the medical industry have had a prominent confluence, ceramic 3D printing provides unique advantages to multiple fields of healthcare. One such example comes from Admatec and CAM Bioceramics, who developed re-absorbable ceramics for developing bones. Using hydroxyapatite, Admatec and its partners can manufacture patient-specific, bioresorbable implants, which have defined pore structures and geometries. Using such bioceramics, they can also create far more complex channels, geometries, and lattice and honeycomb structures, imbuing implants and medical appliances with all sorts of mechanical properties.

Austria-based ceramic additive manufacturing company Lithoz has also been applying a lot of research time and funds to the development of dental products and implants. In this regard, not only are ceramics durable and maintain stability while possessing high mechanical performance, but 3D printing them has lower material wastage, improved customizability and greater design freedom. The ceramics companies Lithoz uses are also medically optimized, even though many are awaiting ISO certification.

Another example of ceramics in the medical field is that of micro-pillar arrays, which can be used as transducers for applications in medical imaging and non-destructive evaluation. These pillars are much easier to produce in this way and offer far better alternative shapes as compared to traditional manufacturing methods. The array’s main elements are usually designed with simpler geometries, such as cubes or rectangles, restricting potential applications. Mask-Image-Projection-based Stereolithography (MIP-SL) technology is particularly useful in producing such structures.

4D Printed Ceramics & Better Sensors

Ceramic printing has also seen a major growth in applications related to developing sensors of various types. These can be seen in industries as diverse as communication, 5G network development and even space travel. One such project came courtesy of City University Hong Kong and their work with 4D printed ceramics that can alter shape, properties and size in relation to external stimuli.

Aside from these mechanical properties, 4D ceramics have a low dielectric loss and can be designed with excellent thermal stability of dielectric properties. As a result, they tend to make for great electronics or sensors with the added advantage that it can be pretty easy to add metal components to them. They also bring with them a whole lot of magnetic and absorption properties. This even gives them a pretty decent potential as materials for cell phones and routers.

The Hong Kong team developed the ceramic as an extremely elastic substance that could be printed properly. The material itself uses mixture of ceramics and polymers, making its structure softer and malleable, yet having high durability. Such ceramics also have high temperature resistance in addition to all these desirable tensile capabilities. No wonder researchers see them as ideal for non-metal heating apparatuses and propulsion technology.

Researchers have also been using stretchable and durable ceramics to develop new types of piezoelectric electronics. These are useful in manufacturing sensors for acoustic imaging and energy harvesting, among many other applications. Such technologies run into obstacles with traditional manufacturing methods like etching and dicing, whereas 3D printing allows for complex geometries with high resolutions. Another major con for traditional manufacturing is that mechanical stress caused by the traditional machining processes can result in grain pullout, strength degradation and depolarization of certain aspects of the product, which will lead to significant degradation in piezoelectric device performance. Conversely, 3D printed designs of all sorts can be provided by manufacturers or rapid prototyping services at far better speeds with a lot less (if any) manual post-processing.

Ceramic Printed Optics

Transparent ceramics are widely used for optical equipment and 3D printed ceramics are making their way into this crucial industry. The main advantages that 3D printing brings into this particular production process are the improved automation and accuracy. Traditionally, producing optics has involved both manual and automated processes, therefore making it both laborious and prone to inaccuracies. This is not the case with additive manufacturing, which is bringing more speed and rapid prototyping to the table for 3D printed ceramic optics.

Additionally, making optics and mirrors with other methods like milling can waste up to 80% more material—along with the myriad common advantages AM brings like reduced weights, complex geometries and better lead times, this reduces costs and decreases risks incurred throughout the manufacturing process. Programs and processes like those developed by 3DCeram have allowed designers to customize their optics in all sorts of ways, producing novel new shapes.

Additionally, this also allows optics to be made from many sorts of ceramic materials, sometimes with a single machine. These materials can alter mechanical properties and give the optics different functions, from aerospace applications to high-energy lasers. Different materials can give an optical tool different mechanical and thermal properties, stiffness and density, among other characteristics.

There are also faster 3D printing methods, like ceramic or glass stereolithography, that can create such optics within five hours. These also offer the ability to hollow out sections, allowing for different function for the optic, making them useful for industries as diverse as biomedical, structural, or energy system applications, among many more. They can even create intricate internal structures that boost the strength without increasing weight.

It’s easy to see why more and more firms and institutions are turning to the use of new ceramic methods for the immense quality, time-saving and cost efficiency. All of these abilities are bringing ceramic printing to the forefront, showing off how much potential it has for industrial and medical applications.

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