3D printing shows steady progress

This year there are several trade shows taking place in the major cities around the world under the umbrella title 3D Printshow to showcase developments in this technology. There was one in London recently and so, in between visiting and writing about Fespa, I went to see how the 3D world is developing. 

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Overall this years event didn’t feel as lively as last year’s. To me it seemed that there were less stands and that they were spread out. But there was also a more business like feel to the show, with a lot more space set aside for meetings. 

Several vendors were keen to highlight real world users. Thus Ultimaker showed off Mojito shoes, designed by Julian Hakes, who used an Ultimaker printer for the prototypes.

I came across a potter, Jonathan Keep, on the Wasp stand. Keep says that he was increasingly drawn to creating different forms on a computer and that 3D printing offered a way to more tangible way to realise those forms. He adds: “You can do different forms. The surface decoration can be incorporated into the making.” The 3D printer uses a standard clay so it can go in the kiln as with conventional pottery. Keep continues: “You can make things a little bit different between each one so you can get back a little bit of individuality. If you use a mould then they all come out the same.”

Potter Jonathan Keep, demonstrating ceramics that he has 3D printed.
Potter Jonathan Keep, demonstrating ceramics that he has 3D printed.

Strangely, Stratasys, which is by far the biggest player in the 3D world, didn’t bother with a stand of its own though several of its machines were dotted about the event on other people’s stands and it was the major show sponsor. Stratasys did demonstrate that it’s active in the only two areas that have really taken 3D manufacturing to heart – medical and automotive. It’s hardly surprising that formula one teams should be using 3D printing, but less obvious was the more idiosyncratic Morgan, which still uses wood to build cars. But it turns out that Morgan also also uses 3D printing to create numerous production tools that its engineers then use to hand build the cars. It also 3D prints bespoke parts, including various parts of the interior, wing mirrors, grills and logos for some of its luxury cars.

Morgan has been using 3D printing for its luxury hand built cars.
Morgan has been using 3D printing for its luxury hand built cars.

On the medical side, there were samples shown from the Cranio-Maxillofacial Prosthetics Unit of King’s College Hospital. This unit has taken the technology to heart, using it to produce items facial prosthetics such as custom-fit biomedical implants that restore bone deformity.

I also bumped into Alan Faulkner-Jones, a bio-engineering researcher based at Heriot Watt university in Edinbburgh, who’s reasonably well-known in the 3D world. He says that the short term goal of his research is to target specific organic samples as a relative cheap method for drug testing. Faulkner-Jones adds: “But the step after that is to use the same concept to repair or replace damaged components in he human body.” He says this could include things like the pancreas or insulin producing elements.

 Raw materials

That said, the main market for most of the people exhibiting still seemed to be educational establishments. Most people still cite prototyping as the main use for 3D printing though Rudiger Theobald, Verbatim’s European marketing director, did say that he expects the consumer market to take off later this year, in time for Christmas. Personally, I’m not convinced – there didn’t seem to be much that was particularly new at the show, and a great deal that was familiar from last year. 

There was however a noticeable emphasis on filaments, an area that’s worth a separate article in its own right. Thus Verbatim, better known for storage products, showed off its filaments. Theobald says that the company is part of the Mitsubishi Chemicals group adding: “We can choose from 12,000 different plastic materials and chemistry from Mitsubishi.” The trick is to find which of these can be used to create new filament materials that are flexible enough to be rolled up but strong enough to build objects. 

Verbatim sells a PLA filament, which Theobald says is a big growth area at the moment as many of the newer consumer machines use 1.75mm PLA filaments. He explains: “They want to reach a lower price point to attract more customers, and with this material you don’t need a heated pad which cuts the printer cost by about €150.”

Verbatim continues to sell ABS, which is stronger than PLA and generally preferred for most industrial applications. But Theobald points out: “ABS is petrochemical based and so its not as environmentally-friendly.”

Verbatim also has a new product, Primalloy, which is a soft flexible material that feels a bit like rubber. It’s oil resistant and has good heat resistance.

This wheel uses a hard plastic like PLA but with the tyre printed with Verbatim's  rubber-like Primalloy.
This wheel uses a hard plastic like PLA but with the tyre printed with Verbatim’s rubber-like Primalloy.

Verbatim is planning to launch several new materials by September, including Tefabloc, a thermoplastic elastomer that’s less flexible than Primalloy but with better heat resistance. Theobald adds: “We know there is a strong demand for tougher materials

Theobald says that Verbatim is also planning to launch a PVOH material in September that is water-soluble. This can be used to create the support elements of an object – many shapes need an internal support structure until the primary material has cooled down and hardened. But removing the support material can be difficult and time consuming but the PVOH material will dissolve in a water bath that can then be flushed away.

 New printers

There were several new printers on show. Ultimaker showed off two new models, the compact Ultimaker 2 Go and the much larger Ultimaker 2 Extended.

Wasp, based in Italy, showed off an interesting 3D printer that can handle ABS and flexible materials. The extruded is suspended from a three point access, which Wasp says is more accurate, and the extruded can be changed according to the material to be printed. Its available in three sizes: 20x40cm for €2400; 40x70cm for €6000; and 60x100cm for €15,000.

Wasp is also developing a 12m high version capable of building small shelters, which could be used for things such as disaster relief. It’s transportable and can be powered from a solar panel. Veronica Schiavone, press officer with Wasp says: “We can take clay and fibre from the area so we don’t need any materials.”

The inside view of the Mcor Iris HD printer.
The inside view of the Mcor Iris HD printer.

Irish company Mcor technologies has further developed the printer it showed last year with a new HD Iris model. This uses new algorithms and a newly designed carbide cutting tip for sharper text and more accurate colour

Mcor takes a unique approach to 3D printing, using sheets of paper to create objects, a process it calls SDL or Selective Deposition Lamination. Each sheet is trimmed as desired, and the next sheet glued on top of it and trimmed as well, with the object built up one sheet at a time. The models can be tapped, threaded, hinged, and made water resistant and flexible. Users can print hollows and moving parts, and recycle used models for cradle-to-grave sustainability. But the main advantage is that the consumables cost – standard A4 paper – is far cheaper than other 3D printers.

In conclusion, the whole feel of the show seemed a lot more grown up than last years event. Mostly, 3D printing seems to attract a lot of geeks – myself included – and that usually means lots of small goth or sci-fi figurines dotted about everywhere. But that wasn’t so noticeable this time around, with a much greater emphasis on more practical items like industrial components and it seems that most companies are keen to talk to artists and manufacturers for further projects. Or perhaps I just tune out the Star Trek figurines. 

 

 

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