3D printing is moving from prototyping to heralding a new era in customized production. This was the message last month at K Fair in Germany.
While it may have been over-hyped as a potential consumer product, 3D printing—better known in industry as additive manufacturing—was all the rage at Düsseldorf’s K Fair 2016. Many different 3D printing powders were launched, alongside some world firsts.
Until now, 3D printing has been viewed primarily as a way to develop prototypes quickly and affordably. According to the Consumer Technology Association, 2/3 of manufacturers already use it for product development. But the technology now appears to be maturing into an industrial process.
The core concept remains the same. Once a product design has been created using CAD, it can be produced almost immediately. This creates many opportunities for customization.
K Fair was the occasion to present the world’s first industrial 3D printer able to produce silicone rubber parts.
Munich-based materials and technology manufacturer Wacker Chemie‘s ACEO Imagine Series K printer uses a drop-on-demand method. The printer head deposits tiny silicone droplets on a substrate to build a workpiece layer by layer. The silicone is then vulcanized by UV light.
Wacker offers a webshop service where customers can upload their own designs and order a small number of 3D printed silicone parts. These are produced in the ACEO print facility and shipped anywhere in the world.
Mass customization appears to be the future of 3D printing. It can be used produce parts inexpensively, something that once could only be done via expensive injection molding.
The medical industry is a target for Wacker, as it is for Stratasys. The latter demoed various 3D printed body parts, including cross-sections of the human brain. They were produced by its J750 3D, the world’s first full-color, multi-material 3D printer. The machine also produced shoe prototypes and plastic sushi.
Some foresee a step-change in 3D printing, as it moves from prototyping to a full-fledged industrial process for creating customized products.
Fair exhibitor Covestro announced new filaments, powders and resins enabling 3D printers to create thermally-resistant, transparent and flexible products. As an example, the company demonstrated its personalizable watch straps.
The firm’s Fused Filament Fabrication technique employing thermoplastic polyurethane was also used to 3D print a pair of loudspeakers for Audiolens.
Patrick Thomas, Covestro CEO explained:
There are certain things you can only do with 3D printing that you can’t do with molds. But the scale of 3D printing is changing. We’re starting to see free-form 3D printers that use two different polymers, one of which is water-soluble and only acts as scaffolding, which means you can produce almost any imaginable shape.
The message at K Fair was loud and clear. 3D printing isn’t just here to stay, it’s poised to bring fundamental change to industry.