3D Printing Alone May Not Be the Answer

If you believe the press, 3D printing is about to launch another industrial revolution.  Gone will be big factories, and everyone will satisfy their need for physical things with a 3D printer in their own home.   Those who realize not everyone wants to be a “maker” or “hacker”, concede that there will still be “factories” but of a new design.  Like Shapeways in New York, next generation factories will only have 3D printers and each person will email in their CAD file for a personal take on a particular product they want.  Sounds pretty cool!

Reality is somewhat more complex.  While 3D printers utilize powerful technology with unique capabilities, it is not the replicator that we’ve hoped for since first seeing the space age machine on Star Trek.  Yes, 3D printing can make some consumer products in one piece like a birdcage with a swinging bird inside.  But speed is an issue and if you need 100 or 1000 identical parts, cost would be prohibitive.

3D printing is optimal when customization is important, such as medical braces and prosthesis that can be formed to the patient’s body for a perfect fit that does not cause blisters.  In manufacturing, 3D printing shines when speed is not an issue, as in rapid prototyping.  The CAD files can be easily changed so that engineers can try out new designs.  But even then, 3D printing may not be the total solution.

Companies in the business of manufacturing know that choosing the right process for the job is key to producing the best products.  And often, products demand multiple processes.  Such is often the case with 3D printing.  By integrating 3D printing with other technologies on the factory floor, companies can have the best options available for meeting customer needs. 

Potomac Photonics of Lanham MD often integrates 3D printing with laser micromachining or micro CNC machining.  Potomac President and CEO Mike Adelstein has found that, “by integrating multiple tools, we can then spend our time on the more challenging aspects of the job, rather than trying to get the wrong tool to work.”

For a recent contract service job making micro-fluidic devices, 3D printing was the clear technology choice for making the larger part of the structure – an approximately 2” x 2” clear acrylic part with features in the 100 – 200 micron range.  Traditional manufacturing such as milling or CNC does not easily produce the detailed features required by the customer design, so 3D Printing made sense.

With 3D printing there’s also a very clean finish, and no melting or HAZ [heat-affected-zone].  Plus in this case 3D printing actually saved time.  Multiple parts could be made in the 3D Systems Corp. high-resolution production 3D printer as a batch, rather than individually making each part mechanically with subtractive processes. 

The channels to complete the device were then created with laser micromachining. 

As shown in the photo, the channels are 10 micron wide and 10 micron deep; the posts are 140 microns diameter and 70 microns deep, resolution too small for most 3D Printers.  Potomac has been working in micro-fabrication since the 1980’s and is an expert in combining technologies to solve a customer solution.

3D printing has been added to Potomac’s dazzling capabilities but often works best when combined with other, older high tech processes that make the best product possible!

The Maine FabLab, [www.MaineFabLab.org], is a non-profit digital fabrication laboratory in the MIT FabLab model.  Contact us via Twitter at @maineFabLab  Potomac Photonics [www.potomac-laser.com] has almost 3 decades of microfabrication experience and also operates the MicroFabLab, [www.microfablab.com] a rapid prototyping and innovation center.  The company’s services include 3D printing, laser and CNC micromachining, micro-molding, marking, assembly and packaging.  

One Comment

  1. Nice article, I think it that the applied manufacturing method must depend always on the actual situation. 3D printing might be the right choice for rapid prototyping and/or production of small series, it has got so many benefits instead of the ‘traditional’ subtractive manufacturing methods. Additive fabrication technology doesn’t solve all the problems alone, but it’s the way of the future. Printing with metals or composite materials are the way of the evolution, even when it’s about smart materials. Of course, the whole design process and methodology needs to be revolutionized, but in the process, it’s been already a change of architectural and design paradigms. A hope that computational parametric design and 3D printing will really be the new industrial revolution.

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