Scientists from the University of Southern California and the Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) have developed a reusable carrier that can dramatically reduce the amount of material wasted in FDM 3D printing.
The team’s device is designed to aid builds using die-based or extrusion-based machines. It has dynamically controlled metal pins that adjust to the printhead level as each layer is printed. Once each part is complete, the carrier can be removed, reset and reused on the next job. This results in reliable and robust structures while using around 35% less material.
Improvement of support mechanisms
It is well known in the industry that when 3D printing complex parts with overhanging structures, supports need to be built in to avoid failures. This can be achieved by adding additional material to support the part when using FDM and SLA systems. However, this often results in longer lead times and significant waste, since the carrier is typically discarded after use.
Commercial software like MakerBot and Simplify3D can be used to create custom support designs, often with vertical wall-like structures connecting the areas at greatest risk of demolition. However, such approaches are often focused on reliability over print speed, and even with significant optimizations, making parts with cantilever features remains a material-intensive task.
In the past, Autodesk has also experimented with a unique type of branching support that only lifts certain parts of the overhang area, but this has also proven to be flawed. The company’s innovative tree-like design included weight-optimized sloping columns, but also less gluing, making them more prone to instability and, ultimately, misprints.
After discovering that pressure supports, however designed, lead to wasted material, the researchers set out to develop a novel reusable device made up of a flexible pin array and specifically designed for use with low-cost FDM machines is optimized.
A schematic diagram of the team’s FDM 3D printer and reusable support. Image via the Additive Manufacturing Journal.
An environmentally friendly FDM support
The researchers’ novel design is characterized by a set of metal pins in a three-layer sheet metal structure. While the first two layers are attached to the outer frame of the device, the third is connected to a 3D printer-controlled motorized table that moves after each layer is printed to the same layer thickness as the extrusion head.
Once each pen is at the correct height, a magnetic disk and ring combination locks them in place to prevent them from slipping and spoiling the print as a whole. To maximize the effectiveness of their assistance, the scientists developed a custom CAD model and prototype of an FDM system (based on the Orion Delta) before performing a series of ABS and PLA test prints.
When making parts with overhangs of 15mm, 30mm, 45mm and 60mm, no additional supports were needed, while larger overhangs required significantly less reinforcement than usual. Compared to conventional FDM 3D-printed components, the prototypes also proved to be far more robust, used an average of 35% less material and achieved shorter part lead times of around 38%.
In the future, the scientists believe that their device could also be used to support printing in SLA, SLM and DIW 3D printing. To achieve this, the team is already working on possible upgrades, including a closed chamber that could allow better temperature control and less ABS deformation.
Soluble carrier solutions
Carrier materials are still an important element for the stable FDM 3D printing of structures. However, removing these materials during post-processing can be a time-consuming and costly task. In order to make work easier and faster for users, companies such as Infinite Material Solutions have brought water-soluble carrier filaments onto the market.
The company’s AquaSys 180 material was developed for coextrusion with high-temperature polymers and allows greater design freedom, as no carrier needs to be removed during the 3D modeling phase. Similarly, EnvisionTEC previously worked with Sartomer to develop a water-soluble resin for use with its proprietary CDLM 3D printing platform.
Known as “E-Aquasol”, the material was made using Sartomer’s N3xtDimension UV curable resin technology, N3xtDimension, and has water-soluble properties that enable industrial users to avoid the use of harsh solvents during carrier removal.
The researchers’ findings are listed in their article titled “Reusable Support for Additive Manufacturing,” which was co-authored by Yang Xu, Ziqi Wang, Siyu Gong, and Yong Chen.
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The image shown shows the software’s graphical user interface (GUI) designed for the team’s 3D printer and reusable metal support. Image via the Additive Manufacturing Journal.