Stratasys today unveiled two industrial 3D printers that can build objects of virtually any size using materials such as carbon fiber for lighter wieght and stronger parts.
The printers were designed to address the requirements of aerospace, automotive and other industries by being able to build completed parts with repeatable mechanical properties.
The 3D printers are not yet commercially available, but Stratasys is working with Ford Motor Company and Boeing to develop new applications for them.
The two new machines include the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator and the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator.
Because both printers use a "screw" or "worm" drive filament extruder, they're able to print with composite materials, such as carbon fiber, which don't shrink or warp as much as traditional thermoplastics. Typically, fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers press a polymer filament through a pair of wheels or gears and out of a heated extruder head, layer by layer. A screw extruder winds the filament through the head, which increases the flow pressure needed tor extruding composite materials.
Stratays' Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator uses a horizontal build platform versus a traditional vertical platform to create printed objects. By turning the platform horizontally, the machine can build parts sideways, which translates into a build area that's only limited by the space a manufacturer has.
"This gives us the capacity for making much larger parts and to gain much lighter assembly," said Ellen Lee, technical leader at Ford's additive manufacturing research facility.
3D printing allows the Ford design freedom it cannot get from traditional manufacturing methods, such as injection molding, Lee said. With injection molding, one automobile or truck part often consists of many smaller pieces that must be joined together, creating less strength and greater weight.
"With the increased print size, we could consolidate many large parts into one," Lee said.
"We're producing parts that are now measured in feet rather than inches," said Richard Garrity, president of Stratasys Americas.
Aerospace giant Boeing also played an influential role in defining the requirements and specifications for the demonstrator 3D printers, Stratasys said.
Boeing is currently testing an Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator to explore the production of low volume, lightweight parts.
"Additive manufacturing represents a great opportunity for Boeing and our customers, so we made a strategic decision more than a decade ago to work closely with Stratasys on this technology," Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said. "We are always looking for ways to reduce the cost and weight of aircraft structures, or reduce the time it takes to prototype and test new tools and products so we can provide them to customers in a more affordable and rapid manner."
By flipping an FDM 3D printer on its side, Stratasys was not only able to increase the size of parts, but also achieve speeds 10 times or more greater than traditional FDM technology, according to Garrity.
Stratasys' other new machine, the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator, utilizes a material extruder at the end of a robotic arm that can maneuver along a 5-point axis. The printer also has a robotically-controlled print platform that can move along three axes. Combined, the 8-axis robotic printer enables extremely precise builds from virtually any angle, reducing the need for typical support materials, which has dramatically slowed 3D parts production.
Just as with a desktop 3D printer, the new Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator is an FDM model and uses a heated extruder head to melt and deposit multiple layers of polymers to create an object. Once the basic part is constructed, a second smaller extruder head on the robotic arm can be used to create fine details.
A major advantage to the Robotic 3D printer is the ability to print across fused layers, adding strength to a part. For example, traditional vertical FDM 3D printers construct an object using a process that creates ribbing that is more easily broken. Multi-axis printing allows the composite materials to move right to left, up and down or diagonally, adding strength.
"Unfortunately, composites production is constrained by labor-intensive processes and geometric limitations," Stsratasys said in a statement. "The Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator...redefines how future lightweight parts will be built, and provides a glimpse into how this technology could be used to accelerate the production of parts made from a wide variety of materials."