The most widespread and capable form of multi-material 3D printing is PolyJet, Stratasys’ unique inkjetting process capable of dispensing a variety of photopolymer inks that are then cured using ultraviolet (UV) light. However, Stratasys is not the only one in this segment, with 3D Systems perhaps being the leading competitor, followed by a variety of smaller firms and startups. Now, Infotech AG, a Swiss firm dedicated to automation and manufacturing hardware and software, has entered the space with its own form of inkjetting.
Infotech was established in 1984 as developer of software for a Swiss assembly machine manufacturer. After a repositioning in 1999, the company became focused on manufacturing tools for such applications as the automatic dispensing of fluids and the assembly of small, delicate components. These tools come in the form of desktop system, production cells or cells within a complete production line.
Using its IP-500 Desktop Dispenser as the foundation, Infotech has developed a system for 3D printing a variety of liquid materials from several dispensing heads, which can be modified to use three different valves: jet valves, time-pressure valves and screw dispensing systems. The resin is then cured under a UV lamp.
Infotech’s process has some unique features, based on the company’s history as a producer of manufacturing equipment and machine vision. For instance, a camera system attached to the printer makes real-time control possible to ensure precision. The thickness of each layer of resin is determined using non-contact measurement, which makes it possible to correct the amount of material dispensed if needed.
The dispensing heads can also print in parallel, enabling the use of multiple liquid materials in a single build. Other benefits from Infotech’s background include the level of automation in the system, which includes the cleaning of needles and nozzles in the system.
The technology has been created to work with epoxy resins from adhesive manufacturer DELO, which Infotech allows for the proper printing quality. The company suggests that, because DELO’s materials have similar chemical properties to one another, proper adhesion between layers is achieved with the technology. Infotech even states that parts exhibit isotropic properties in all directions.
Like other inkjet technologies, this process can produce parts with varying transparency and flexibility. Infotech adds that parts the conductive materials can be used, as well, which we have seen in some forms of inkjet printing but not PolyJet from Stratasys or MultiJet from 3D Systems.
Infotech is selling the technology in the form of a standalone system but can also adapt the machine for in-line dispensing cells. The system can incorporate outside equipment, such as jet valves and LED curing lamps.
As of now, Infotech bills the technology as best suited for prototyping and small-series production, with application areas including automotive and microelectronics, where DELO materials have previously succeeded due high temperature resistance and other properties.
What is most interesting to me is Infotech’s experience with industrial production and automation, including machine vision. It’s too early to tell the extent to which its new 3D printing technology will impact the larger industry, but there is the potential for the company to play a role in industrializing inkjet 3D printing. Knowing that the company creates systems for the production of wafers and other electronics, it would be interesting to see if it can someone be the firm that develops all-in-one 3D printing factories capable of producing complete devices.
Up until now, inkjet 3D printers, as impressive as they have been, have remained standalone units, usually for prototyping. But with Infotech having developed a variety of production equipment, it’s not difficult to imagine inkjet technology scaling up for production. One area that will need to improve, however, is the overall physical properties of the resins used. Most inkjet systems print using photopolymers that are only suitable for prototyping and cannot withstand long-term wear and tear. Perhaps this is where DELO, an established, albeit comparatively small, chemical company with €156 million in annual revenues will come in.
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