The idea of a 3D printing is pretty cool all on it’s own. But when you can make high strength parts, well, now you’ve really got something.
One variation on 3D printing uses chopped glass fiber and ABS plastic that can be melted and flow the way conventional 3D printing materials behave. The combination of glass fibers with ABS results in much harder parts and this increase in part strength is just right for many applications.
A straightforward adaptation is to make 3D plastic parts from and cast the part in plaster or a ceramic that can be used as a mold for conventional metal casting techniques. For many parts, a lot of detail can be captured easily and high quality parts can be produced cost effectively. If the parts are small, you can print many of them so that they can be connected in a “family” mold. Again, this is a very well established metal forming technique that is made more cost effective with 3D printing.
Higher strength is possible with a wide range of 3D metal processes. In one process, metal powder is fused in tiny regions using a focused laser. As a layer is completed, a screed pushes a fresh layer of powdered metal and the process repeats. Solid metal parts without machining.
Another method uses metal powder that is combined with water and lubricants and binders so that the powdered metal can be fed through a syringe. The resulting slurry can be formed into parts using low end printers. The parts are cured to drive out water and then the parts are ready for sintering. The resulting parts have 80-90% of the strength of the native material. All kinds of materials are being experimented with like bronze, steel and stainless steel.
There are even exotic alloys like Titanium that can be formed using 3D printing techniques. Shapes that are impossible with machining techniques are possible with 3D printing. And the process also makes possible combinations of alloys that are not possible with other processes.
This leads to a lot of questions about the future of manufacturing. Will this technology mature to the point where it will displace machining of bulk parts like engine blocks and pistons? Does 3D printing offer lowering costs for mature manufactured parts?
These are just a few of the possibilities that may be on the horizon. When it comes to complex parts like plates for fuel cells, the 3D printer may be the breakthrough that is needed to achieve cost performance that make a lot of new technology cost effective.
Does 3D printing represent a lowering of the cost of entry in production parts. This aspect opens even more questions. In markets where the tool up to manufacturing something like a car is so high, the 3D printer may create an order of magnitude reduction in those costs. The cost of new product development can be substantial, so any new technology that lowers development cost is likely to bring a whole of new ideas to the party.