With its new technology Stratasys is about to turn 3D printing on its head . . . almost . . .
Historically, 3D printers have been constrained in many ways: material range, speed, quality and the print size. Efforts were made, and continue to be made, to expand the materials, increase throughput and achieve higher and higher levels of quality.
Yet, the build volume — the cube within which the 3D-printed part is made — was constrained by the frames that held the printer together. And, sure, you could make bigger and bigger frames — just ask Massivit about its 4’ x 5’ x 6’ (1.2 x 1.5 x 1.8 m) build volume. Still, 3D printers were constrained by their frames.
Yet, there is a growing market for large and very large parts. Aircraft manufacturers and passenger train car builders would like very long panels (ideally with the electronics to enable high end passenger entertainment systems and other features incorporated on them). The same holds true for motor coach builders and others who benefit from short run, large format 3D-printed parts.
Stratasys will be bringing its new “Infinite-Build Demonstration 3D Printer” and “Robotic Composite Demonstration 3D Printer” to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago next month. Along with the press and financial analysts, I was present for their unveiling at Stratasys’ USA headquarters in Eden Prairie MN yesterday. The devices are not incremental changes but innovative 3D printers that take Stratasys’ fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology to a whole new level.
Infinite-Build doesn’t quite turn FDM on its head — it turns it sideways. Traditionally FDM printers (and all material extrusion printers, to use the generic term) extruded vertically. Moving in the X and Y axes to print a layer, the extrusion nozzle would then raise up incrementally to print each succeeding layer. Infinite-build actually extrudes horizontally. The extrusion unit, spare extrusion screw and powder are here:
And shown attached to the unit that moves up, down and sideways while the extruder is working (video here):
Source: Pete Basiliere
The Infinite-Build’s pellet extruder is oriented parallel to the floor instead of pre-formed filament. The build plate stands 90 degrees to the floor instead of the much more common horizontal orientation. With the extrusion nozzle protruding into a heated chamber, the material is extruded onto the build plate. The plate retreats from the nozzle with every new layer, eventually moving beyond the oven. (A video of the Infinite-Build’s monitor with images from a camera inside the build chamber is here.)
By the time the plate has moved beyond the oven the extruded plastic has solidified to the point that it no longer must be heated to keep its shape or require the build plate. The plate is removed and the build continues without interruption — in theory to infinity. A 4m sample print from Stratasys’ new Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator:
Photo Courtesy of Kerry Stevenson (Fabbaloo)
Now Stratasys is not the first provider with an “infinite” 3D printer. VoxelJet’s VX4000 is a continuous build 3D printer that uses binder jetting technology to produce sand castings. Of course, the Infinite-Build’s technology and applications are altogether different.
The Robotic Composite Demonstration 3D Printer transforms the build volume concept. A robot arm equipped with an extrusion head builds items in 8 axes (6 for the arm, 2 for the plate):
The device was 3D printing a dome-shaped piece with a thin ribbon-like lip snaking around it. The part was made of carbon-infused nylon:
The Robotic Composite was printing pre-made filament when I saw it, but the pellet extruder was waiting nearby should high material volumes be required to make a part or to enable near-continuous operation.
How does the Robotic Composite update the build volume concept? After all Viridis already sells a binder jetting 3D printer that uses a robot arm to sweep its printheads across foundry sand to create castings. And Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, Matsuura and Optomec all enable 3D printheads to be used in CNC machines alongside conventional machine tools.
In the beginning, Robotic Composite will be restricted by the robot arm’s reach. Smaller or larger robot arms will decrease or increase the build volume to some finite limit.
Think about it: a robot arm (or arms) equipped with extrusion heads can be installed alongside an assembly line, layering nylon (and eventually other materials) onto parts as they pass by the head. The assembly line could be intermittent or continuous, with multiple Robotic Composites 3D printing multiple materials such as plastics, composites and conductive inks. Lest you think that this is far-fetched, know that Siemens (which has a Digital Factory business unit) is developing the automation software that goes into Robotic Composite.
Stratasys is bringing Infinite-Build and Robotic Composite to the IMTS show. The devices are literally technology demonstrations unit meant to gauge market interest in and to solicit prospective buyers’ critiques of the concepts. And Stratasys would not provide a timeline for commercialization or estimated pricing, questions that will be top of mind for the attendees.
There is a risk in this approach: Not only customers but also competitors will be taking a hard, if sometimes curious and skeptical, look at the Demonstrators. You can bet that the booth staff for every other exhibitor will stop by to see what is happening — and then visualize ways to up their game, too.
Stratasys, which has a $100 million R&D budget, will have to pour more money into the project and keep engineers and technicians working on commercializing the concepts. But Scott Crump, Stratasys’ founder and Chief Innovation Officer, has been developing these concepts for about three years already and it doesn’t seem likely he will stop innovating any time soon.
Time will tell whether the Demonstrators come to market and in what form. Conceptually, the innovations surrounding the Infinite-Build and Robotic Composite Demonstrator 3D Printers will be applied elsewhere in Stratasys’ product line. In the meantime, FDM will continue growing in importance for prototyping, making tools, jigs and fixtures, and 3D printing finished goods.
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Category: 3d-printing trends-predictions
Tags: 3-d-print 3d-print 3d-printer additive-manufacturing binder-jetting hybrid-manufacturing-technologies material-extrusion matsuura optomec scott-crump stratasys viridis voxeljet
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