The spectacularly astonishing new technology, additive manufacturing or 3-D printing, continues to grow thanks to reducing costs, new processors, and greater research. The price reduction comes mainly from an increase in the availability of and access to the technology to a broader audience. However, it has other things going for it too, such as increasing automation, expanding materials, improving software, and voxel control, all continuing to push the limits of additive manufacturing.
According to Rich Stump, principal and co-founder of FATHOM, manufacturers typically switched from 3-D printing to injection molding when they need to produce 300-400 parts at a time. However, newer 3-D printers such as the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator takes that number up to around 1500-2000 parts. This allows customers to reap the benefits of time and cost with repeatable and constant 3-D printing. Not only does this reduce the complexity, but also offers advantages of the iterative design process. The latest 3-D printers are now posing a serious price challenge to injection molding, for bridge-to-production and low-volume runs.
However, 3-D printed metals often suffer from microscopic defects during production, as revealed by research that the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy has conducted. APS is the leading source of hard X-rays, necessary to image the process of additive manufacturing. Such research produces data for more accurate in-line inspections and helps drive the AM market towards improved reliability.
Apart from the importance of inspecting every centimeter of a printed part, fabricators are also interested in controlling the properties of those areas, and many companies are now working in this area. Just as a pixel relates to a photo, a voxel is a part of the three-dimensional object. Therefore, envision a three-dimensional object made of tiny cubes or voxels. Companies are now trying to control the properties of each voxel individually to allow changes in durometers, color, and other properties.
By controlling the property of individual voxels, fabricators are able to control properties of the metal such as conductivity and thermo-insulation. Introduction of thermo-conducting inks helps to create active sensors smart enough to have a 3-D printed active material within the part. For instance, it is even possible to create a battery within the 3-D printed structure.
Today, da Vinci Color and Mcor of XYZ Printing can print in color. Although Mcor has been in the market for long, they only build layers of paper following a lamination process. On the other hand, the da Vinci Color uses the extruded plastic process they call as the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) process. This is similar to amalgamating a 2-D color printer with a 3-D printer. The results are spectacular—the new da Vinci Color produces 10 million shades of colors and prints at speeds of 30-60 mm/sec.
Hewlett-Packard has a plan to exhibit further control on the voxel in the coming year. They intend to introduce full color to the 3-D printing scenario. Combining the color capability with a lower pricing is the strategy for Hewlett-Packard, according to Stephen Nigro, president of HP’s 3-D printing business partner.