Emerging Technologies Point to a Limitless Future for 3D Printing


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Additive manufacturing is a powerhouse if you need quality parts quickly. That’s not surprising because 3D printing lets you incorporate complex geometries that other manufacturing processes can’t. It also offers the opportunity to rapidly iterate your parts, which helps speed each step of your product’s life cycle.

These advantages are growing as some manufacturers start to offer automated design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) analysis, new materials, and more finishing options that help parts achieve the look and feel of injection-molded parts.

The Emergence of Automated DfAM

Not too long ago, getting a detailed assessment of how well design elements on your part adhered to the rules of making a printed part meant waiting—sometimes for days. Not anymore. The Protolabs quoting system, for example, can provide instantaneous feedback on a series of common design defects, based on established design principles and previous experience manufacturing similar parts. This allows designers to make necessary changes on the front end, ensuring manufacturability and reducing lead times. With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered tools like automated DfAM analysis, designing for additive manufacturing is not only quicker, but also easier and therefore more accessible.

New Materials and Technologies

When 3D printing began, parts were made solely with plastic-based materials. Today, the choices are much broader, as are the manufacturing processes. You can print in rugged plastics like ABS and PC, but you also have metal options, such as Inconel, aluminum, titanium, cobalt chrome, and stainless steel. These marry the geometric complexity of 3D printing to the toughness (and density) of metals. A win-win if ever there was one.

Beyond that, Protolabs offers printing with a silicone liquid resin using stereolithography (SLA). This material had been used exclusively in injection molding until recently. Prototyping in 3D-printed silicone means you can iterate easier and faster. Because you avoid cutting molds, your parts are less expensive, too, especially in the prototyping phase.

SLA-printed silicone allows for the design freedom of 3D printing in medical applications.

Best of all, the product is 100% silicone. For medical applications, it has passed the following tests for biocompatibility: ISO DIN EN 10993-05 (tests for in vitro cytotoxicity) and ISO DIN EN 10993-10 (tests for irritation and skin sensitization). Plus, you get the usual advantages of molded silicone, including watertight seals, multiple durometers, smooth parts, as well as resistance to deformation, acidic or alkaline environments, high temperatures, moisture and more.

Finishing Options Expand for Printed Parts

Increasingly, printed parts require finishing options that help change the aesthetics or physical characteristics of a part. Because of the nature of some 3D printing processes, undesirable roughness can be apparent.

One of the most sought-after finishing options to remedy this is vapor smoothing. With this technique, we place parts into a chamber, adjust the temperature and pressure, and fill the space with vaporized solvent. Over time, the solvent essentially melts any undesirable ridges and pits, producing a smooth finish. While the part will be much glossier than its molded equivalent, it will have limited signs of being a printed part. There are limitations on the plastic materials vapor smoothing will work on, as well as the processes you can use to make the parts, but it is a proven technique to improve part finish.

Finishing options like vapor smoothing are rapidly expanding 3D printing applications.

The emergence of secondary processes like vapor smoothing is rapidly expanding applications for 3D printing. Other examples include:

  • Clear coating applies a layer of Pantone-matchable paint to your parts, improving aesthetics.
  • Plating parts adds a layer that mimics cast aluminum or magnesium, allowing you to create lightweight parts with a durable exterior.
  • Dyeing places your parts in a colored bath to achieve a consistent color. It’s an inexpensive and fast way to change your part’s aesthetics.
  • Decaling is the simplest way to add a warning or information sticker to your part. Remember that your part will need to be smooth for the decals to adhere well.
  • Texturing can add strength to your part in addition to making it less slippery. Spraying certain materials can give a good approximation of how your part may turn out via molding.
  • Heat-treating is all about strengthening your metal printed parts. The heat eliminates heat-induced stress and warping.

Working with a digital manufacturer like Protolabs brings additional post-processing options, including secondary machining. Let’s say that your part needs a hole drilled through it. You could print it that way, but that might take a long time—and time is money. The alternative is to move it over to our CNC machining centers to take your printed part and mill out that feature. The same applies to incorporating threads—it’s best done on the machining side—but having it all done by one manufacturer is certainly a plus.

Need help?

The number of options for your printed parts is growing every year, but you don’t have to be the expert to know all of them. Head over to Protolabs.com and upload your part to the digital quoting platform for instant DfAM analysis and schedule a meeting with a Protolabs’ applications engineer who can help guide you to the best match of process, material, and finishing for your parts.

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