Published On: Tue, Apr 5th, 2016

Stratasys hails 3D printing breakthrough

Stratasys, the world’s biggest maker of 3D printing systems, is claiming a technological breakthrough that it believes is a big step towards creating a machine able to make anything from trainers to voice recorders in a single operation.

The Israeli-US company this week launches a machine that can make rubber and plastic products with a variety of characteristics — hard, soft, transparent and opaque — in full colour and in a single print.

plastic products

Stratasys hails 3D printing breakthrough

Based on polyjet technology, the machine — which advances the use of additive material technology — cuts the current 3D printing time by half and uses a wider range of materials than previously available, said Andy Middleton, head of Stratasys Europe.

The move comes as 3D printing looks set to move into the industrial mainstream. Aerospace and defence companies are using 3D printed parts both in plastics and metals. BAE Systems, the defence group, last year printed 2,500 parts for its military aircraft.

Compound annual growth in the additive manufacturing industry — the term for production methods where material is added rather than cut away — is estimated at 34 per cent in the past three years, according to the Wohlers Report, an annual assessment of the market.

In 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available, additive manufacturing saw its biggest jump in revenues in 18 years — up 35 per cent to $4bn.

The Stratasys machine will be used for making prototypes, a key stage in the industrial process. While the plastics materials are not yet stable enough to make the final product, that is the ultimate “dream”, Mr Middleton said.

Designing and making a prototype is estimated to account for 5-10 per cent of production costs. These samples are used to work out the tooling systems needed to produce a final product and to decide marketing strategies.

In traditional 3D printing, colour range has been limited and a significant amount of post-processing is needed to assemble the item and paint it, according to Stratasys.

Speeding up the process with a machine that can make a realistic prototype, with full colour designs printed into the fabric of the product, helps to cut costs and speed up access to market, says Brycen Smith, engineering technician supervisor at Otterbox, which makes hard covers for smartphones.

The company uses 500 toolsets to manufacture its covers, and a small design change would mean they would all have to be stopped, at a high cost.

“We make close to 1,000 prototypes a week,” he says. “The cost savings are huge. This will definitely affect our profitability.”

Andrew Triantaphyllou, senior research engineer in additive manufacturing at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, said that the ability to blend a range of colours and materials in a single operation could help to drive the material research that will be necessary for full-scale polymer 3D production. “This is definitely a step forward,” he said.