06 Mar 2017

3D printing – far more than just a prototyping tool

Shawn Silberhorn, Supplier Business Development Manager, Conrad looks at how 3D printing provides reliable prototyping capabilities for all.

If you believe everything you read about 3D printing, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is going to revolutionise the world as we know it. One bio-engineering company has claimed that it can 3D-print a human liver and is working with a leading cosmetics firm to print human skin for use in testing products.

However, while the general public struggles to understand the technology, the engineering community has known about 3D printing since the late 1980s when it was regarded as a rapid prototyping method. Over the following two decades and beyond, various approaches were worked on by different companies to try to get the most out of 3D printing. But like a solution looking for a problem, here was technology that seemed to offer incredible possibilities and yet the difficulty was how to apply it.

Of course, engineering technology has developed significantly since the 1980s and 3D printing has been no exception – the main developments have been in the sophistication of 3D printers and, as in so many other areas, faster production speeds combined with lower production costs, greater ease-of-use and increased versatility.

3D printing today

Today, 3D printing is able to alleviate the cost, time and uncertainty associated with prototyping that comes from the need to design and make tooling – for example, in the case of injection moulded parts. The technology is now an accepted way of producing commercial prototypes and small to medium production quantities – even single item products. Indeed, it has been said that 3D printing will enable some customers to carry out their own manufacturing, removing the need for subcontracting of work.

 3D printing

Making use of 3D printing technology it is possible to create custom components, packaging and other parts required for electronic devices.

You will hear many claims made about 3D printing, such as it can turn your digital designs into reality within minutes, but it is vital to stick with the facts, so here is a simple guide to the technology.

Essentially, fused deposition modelling (FDM) 3D printing referred to in this article, is an additive process, which means that rather than begin with a large piece of material (subtractive process) and cut (mill) it down to the shape you need, this approach uses a layering technique to produce solid objects from several 2D strata of material in whatever thickness has been specified.

3D printing control information

The digital control information used to drive the printing process is sent via printer specific software to the 3D printer. However, first a 3D model needs to be generated, making use of a 3D modelling program or a computer aided design (CAD) system, then it needs to be saved in a file format, such as STL and converted with appropriate 3D printer software into the control information necessary for the 3D printer to utilise. Alternatively, it is also possible to make a perfect copy of existing items using a 3D scanner.

Clearly, this cuts out a substantial chunk of traditional production processes and even finishing, since there are now 3D printers that can make products in a range of colours and materials. This means that a major benefit of 3D printing is that it enables manufacturers to offer production services (essentially printing services) without the need for customers to make any outlay whatsoever for capital equipment.

3D printer options

So what about the printers themselves? How big are they, what do they look like, and what can they really deliver?

A typical example of a serious 3D printer is the RF1000 from Conrad which enables model-based prototypes, architectural models, packaging, parts and even hobby work to be created. Available pre-assembled or as a kit for users to put together themselves, the printer can produce one-off scale models or limited production runs.

The standard material offered for 3D printed components on this printer is PLA, a biodegradable thermoplastic polymer. This material offers low cost printing, easy processing and a sharp, detailed finish.

A selection of other materials are also available, including ABS, rubber, nylon and a variety of special materials that can give a wooden or metallic finish. With a 230 mm x 245 mm x 200 mm print chamber, the RF1000 can produce single large models or print multiple smaller objects at simultaneously.

 3D printing

It is possible to fabricate items from a large variety of different materials including ABS, plastic, rubber, nylon or special materials that offer a resembling wood or metallic type surface finish.

Industry grade profiled rail guides, cable tracks and bearings ensure accurate, high precision printing.

For ease of use, this printer can be operated via USB or a built-in SD card interface. It also has a data display showing current processes and a keypad function to adjust settings. Other features include an automatic calibration process and a heated ceramic print bed with a textured surface so that fabricated objects can be removed quickly after cooling.

The advanced Renkforce RF2000 dual extruder 3D printer joined the RF1000 earlier this year. Unlike the previous hotplate used in the RF1000, this new device features a glass ceramic hotplate offering higher object fixture. The RF2000 is suited to more complex applications, and offers features such as two colour printing and the capability to create 3D objects utilising water-soluble materials as supporting structures. These activities are supported by an additional cooling fan.

A key feature of both the RF1000 an RF200 is that they can be equipped with an optional adapter for milling and engraving machines from Proxxon and Dremel. In combination with the aluminium router table, that ensures a secure hold of the piece being worked on, both printers can easily support the milling of materials such as wood, acrylic, circuit boards and even soft metals. An integrated plug on the device enables the comfortable use of the milling unit.

To maximise print quality and expand the variety of printable materials even further, the selection of add-ons for the RF1000 include an acrylic housing which ensures a controlled temperature within the printer.

Both the RF1000 and RF2000 have been designed to work seamlessly with a new device called a ‘3D Printbox’. This control unit is preconfigured for use with the RF1000 and RF2000 to provide users with a plug and play device that is able to manage and monitor the 3D printer, while in use. To maximise print quality and expand the variety of printable materials even further, the RF1000 accessories also include an acrylic housing which ensures a controlled temperature inside the printer. The Printbox can take the place of a dedicated PC and offers some unique features. Integrated Cloud connectivity makes it possible to have access to its 3D modelling data and print anywhere in the world. Technology such as this shows the way forward for the 3D printing market, as users demand simplified control and improved data management.

3D printing options

Industry grade 3D printing services are intended to meet the needs of customers who are seeking a one-stop solution for high quality prototypes and spare parts – with ordering made as straightforward as possible. In Conrad Business Supplies' case, customers can upload an STL file to a dedicated 3D printing website and verify a virtual model of the intended final product from all angles. Next, the customer selects the finish needed for the job, calculates the price for the work and then just clicks to order.

 3D printing

An advanced 3D printer

It is no exaggeration to say that 3D printing has revolutionised the creation of prototypes and that engineers looking to have parts produced now have a far greater range of options available to them than ever before. Now they can either turn to companies who specialise in 3D printing or they can acquire the latest equipment themselves and create their own parts in-house.

It has been written that 3D printing is a niche technology that has been "hyped up" as the next industrial revolution, with people printing their own consumer goods by the end of the decade. This may or may not be the case but beyond a trivial mainstream approach to 3D printing it is clear that in the world of engineering the technology is continually breaking new ground and pushing the boundaries of production where they have literally never gone before. For the first time in a very long time, manufacturers can be justifiably excited about the future.

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About the author

Shawn Silberhorn is the Head of the Conrad Technologie Centrum (CTC) at Conrad Electronic SE. His responsibilities include overseeing the Conrad R&D Team of Project-Managers and Product-Engineers. Having previously managed the Supplier Business Development activities for the Conrad B2B Purchasing Team his expertise includes a deep knowledge of semiconductor products and technologies. Born in Montana USA, with German ancestry from his Grandfather, he has spent many years working internationally and now calls Bavaria Germany home. His current focus lays with the development of innovative private-label products and new technology business solutions that utilise innovations such as 3D-Printing, Virtual Reality, IoT-Cloud Solutions, Robotics, and Industrial 4.0 Systems.

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