Published On: Tue, May 24th, 2016

Building a better 3D-printing toolbox

Autodesk focuses on creating an unbroken design and additive manufacturing chain

Autodesk (San Rafael, CA) is certainly not alone in seeing a bright future for additive manufacturing (AM), aka 3D printing, but through recent acquisitions and a single-minded focus on creating a seamless AM path from design to manufacture, it hopes to accelerate the technology’s potential.

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Building a better 3D-printing toolbox

Duann Scott, Business Development Manager, Digital Manufacturing Group, will discuss developments in 3D printing during a conference track devoted to the smart manufacturing revolution at next month’s co-located PLASTEC East and MD&M East conferences and trade shows in New York. In advance of the events, Scott spoke with PlasticsToday about the opportunities and challenges of 3D printing.

“3D printing has been integrated into the manufacturing process primarily for prototyping and [the production of] jigs and fixtures, not so much for end-use products,” says Scott. That will change, as more materials become available and prices decline, a process that is already taking place as patents start to expire. “Materials have been controlled by machine manufacturers, who have had a complete monopoly. Autodesk is partnering with machine manufacturers who are open to third-party materials and with materials developers to broaden the product portfolio,” says Scott. Initiatives such as that, in concert with the expiration of patents, will contribute to lowering prices and further move AM into production, he adds. However, to get from here to there, the AM toolbox needs to adapt, as well.

“3D printers can do amazing things, but we often seem to be hacking CAD/CAM and conventional injection molding tools to make it work,” says Scott. The approach at Autodesk entails next-generation additive design tools that connect all the way to the machines. “A complete AM solution with an unbroken chain from design and simulation to machine control and sensing is the focus of our team right now,” says Scott. Recent acquisitions have brought some of the puzzle pieces in house.

Last year, Autodesk acquired netfabb, a German company that develops software for industrial additive design and manufacturing. “And we have tools from Delcam for subtractive and post-production, along with Autodesk, within which is software that helps produce lightweight, latticed designs optimized for additive manufacturing,” explains Scott.

Currently, AM provides the greatest value in manufacturing “small complex things from minimum runs of one,” says Scott. The medical, dental and jewelry sectors are prime targets, he adds, because the products are expensive to begin with and there is a clear need for custom solutions and complex parts, for which 3D printing is well suited. “As the price of materials and machines comes down, applications will broaden out to parts that are less expensive and maybe less complex but still have a custom component,” says Scott. From that perspective, there will be applications in sports equipment and automotive parts, where it makes sense to manufacture parts additively rather than tooling up traditionally, he adds.

At the conference session, Scott will highlight some emerging technologies in 3D printing that he feels hold great promise. He shared a couple with PlasticsToday in advance of the event.

On the plastics side, he has been impressed with a 3D-printing technique based on digital light processing (DLP) technology that improves printing resolution compared with other methods. Medical, dental and jewelry applications will benefit, according to Scott. The high-resolution photopolymers are currently used in hearing aids, he adds. There are already more than 10 million 3D-printed hearing aids currently in use.

As for metals, 3D printing has been hampered by the grain size of the metal particles that are sintered, says Scott. A new company based in Tel Aviv, XJet Ltd., with which Autodesk has partnered, has developed a technology that produces fine-resolution parts in different alloys using a Polyjet process, says Scott. The patented NanoParticle Jetting technique makes use of solid metal nanoparticles within a liquid suspension. Delivered as sealed cartridges, the nanomaterials, as well as the support materials, are loaded easily by hand into the XJet system, eliminating the need to handle metal powders. It claims to be the first company to successfully use inkjet technology to make high-quality 3D metal parts. XJet introduced its technology at the Rapid trade show in Orlando, FL, last week. “We see great potential for medical parts, tooling, conformal molds and more,” says Scott about the technology, which is just now coming to market.