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From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- June 30, 2015 -

Supply Chain News: Potential Breakthrough in 3D Printing Technology Could Enable Low Cost Parts at Scale


HP Promises Similar Gains with Its New Technology Last Fall; Tipping Point for 3D Printing Technology Coming?



SCDigest Editorial Staff

Last October, giant HP announced a new approach to 3D printing that it said would change the cost dynamics of the industry versus current approaches.

Now, researchers in the UK are touting a new 3D printing technology that they say will enable parts to be cost effectively produced in the millions at a time, far, far beyond what is economically feasible today.

SCDigest Says:


Hopkinson has said in the past the HSS is best suited to thermoplastics, from elastomers to engineering polymers, but in the long term it could apply to metals and/or ceramics.

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The MIT Technology Review reported this week that Neil Hopkinson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, has been developing the new method, called high-speed sintering (HSS), for over a decade.

Current 3D printers work by using a single-point laser to melt and fuse thin layers of powdered polymer, one by one. That process is relatively slow, meaning it is only suited for making parts in small quantities for which traditional manufacturing techniques don't make sense. For example, making prototype parts without time consuming manual machining, or potentially replacement parts for various machines so that very slow moving parts inventory does not have to be maintained.

Hopkinson replaced the slow and expensive laser system with an infrared lamp and an ink-jet print head. The print head rapidly and precisely delivers patterns of radiation-absorbing material to the powder bed. Subsequently exposing the powder to infrared light melts and fuses the material into shapes as controlled by the 3D design, and the machine creates thin layers, one by one. It is thus similar to the way laser sintering works, but is much faster and therefore less expensive.

The UK research team says that that given a large enough building area, high-speed sintering is on the order of 10 to 100 times faster than laser sintering depending on the type of part being made, and that it can be cost competitive with injection molding for making millions of small, complex parts at a time. That is in part because of more material efficiency, and also because you eliminate the cost of having to have a tool created to make a part, as is needed with injection molding.

With funding from the British government and a few private sector investors, the group will now build a full scale machine to prove out the theory.

One expert tells the MIT Technology Review that a challenge for the concept could be that only a limited range of materials can be used in the process.

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Phil Reeves, the vice president of strategic consulting for Stratasys, a leading maker of many kinds of additive manufacturing machines and materials, says many widely used plastics may not be compatible with the process, since it relies on combining the powder with an additional, light-absorbing material.


Hopkinson has said in the past the HSS is best suited to thermoplastics, from elastomers to engineering polymers, but in the long term it could apply to metals and/or ceramics.

He now says the machine his group is building will be able to deliver additional materials, such as conductive inks used to print electronic devices, which remains a big technical challenge for additive manufacturing.

Meanwhile, HP announced last October that it was developing somewhat similar technology. Though details are murky, HP calls the technology Multi Jet Fusion. It appears to also employ an ink-jet print head that can deliver both a radiation-absorbing material and another material it calls a "detailing agent."

At the time, HP said its technology would operate at least 10 times faster than existing 3D printing systems. The new machine, expected to be released in late 2016, is also said to be able to digitally print items in different colors and manipulate their form, texture, strength, elasticity, friction, as well control their electrical and thermal properties.

Unlike elective laser sintering, which prints objects point by point, HP's printer will use fused deposition modeling (which lays down plastic in toothpaste-like layers), and be able to prints whole layers at a time.

HP said then that making 1,000 gears using its new printer would take 3 hours, while using laser sintering would take 38 hours to do the same job.

While both the HP and this new approach have yet to be proven in the market, it does seem that we may be close to a "tipping point" in 3D printing that could allow it to go truly mainstream for a much broader range of items and parts to be economically produced.

As many observers have noted, 3D printing is a digital technology and thus subject to Moore's Law, meaning capabilities will double for the same cost about every 18 months.

Are we truly near a tipping point for 3D printing in terms of what can be made and at what cost in scale? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

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