I’ve been in this industry for near on two years - I know my stuff, I can happily go to a trade event and feel like I’m amongst friends but still I find that when I meet the big names, the ones that come pre-fixed with “thought-leader”, “inventor” or “godfather of 3D printing”, I can’t help but get a little nervous.
At this year’s AMUG, I got the opportunity to meet with Chuck Hull, the inventor of stereolithography and as a result, much of this blossoming industry of ours. Before I could make a joke about thanking him for my pay check, I was invited in to take a close look at what’s been going on at 3D Systems since the company demoed its latest groundbreaking technology - the SLA Bot-1.
Four months down the line, they’re showing a scaled up version of the Figure 4 installation, a modular concept featuring ultra-fast stereolithography designed for integration into an automated manufacturing environment. Conceived out of the original stereolithography patent filed by Hull back in 1983, the SLA Bot has grown considerably and the company is showing a much meatier iteration featuring six modules working in a chain with two robotic arms to take the print from start to finish.
This year marks 3D Systems’ 30th anniversary and the evolution of stereolithography is a hot topic. This latest ‘technology demonstration’ represents the next phase in that evolution – the SLA Bot-2. Hull himself has been very hands-on in the development process and the team tell me he was right there when they got the first prototype working “well after hours”.
This is a fully automated production line and it’s integrated with secondary processes including material recovery, solvent bathing, part washing and curing which encompasses the entire manufacturing flow to speed up the process and eliminate the need for manual handling. This way, customised parts can be created in seconds and it’s completely flexible - you can really go as big as you want. Scott shows me the output from a two and a half hour cycle and there are already hundreds of small-scale prints (custom glasses frames and finger splints) piled up ready to go.
“When you look at that compared to what you get out of other printers in two and a half hours it’s very different,” Scott Turner, Senior Researcher at 3D Systems explains. “It doesn’t have to end here either. Typically as we envision our customers, they’ll have secondary operations, they can put electronics in there, fasteners, coatings, all of those things that are used in end-part production.”
Hull adds: “Our product is just this little thing here and the materials so this is to demonstrate to people who want to manufacture, how you would do it and get their minds going – they’re better at that than we are."
The Year of the Materials Scientist
It seems like materials scientists are finally getting their moment to play in the AM industry. We might have faster technologies coming thick and fast but one of the first questions that always gets asked is: “great, but are the materials any good?”
The beauty of the SLA Bot-2 is the potential for materials like hybrid photopolymers, which bring toughness, durability, biocompatibility, high-temperature resistance, elastomeric and even injection moulded properties to open a whole new era of possibilities in end-use applications.
Hull says: “The traditional thinking has been, ‘oh this material has to sit in this vat for months and years and be stable’ and now we don’t care, it frees up the chemist to really do new things.”
3D Systems has been using hybrid chemistry for years but when that initial Figure 4 patent was filed, the enabling technologies that we have today were simply not in existence. Now the scope for specifying materials and their unique properties for individual use cases is wide open. Working with reactive materials, mixing materials and offering strengths that are on par with injection moulded parts, opens the landscape up dramatically.
Scott commented: “It’s about getting our customers and our future customers thinking about this technology and they’re going to come up with much better ways to implement it than we ever could. This is what they do every day, this is what we do every day.”
Right now 3D Systems is actively looking for companies that want to get their hands on this technology. Adoption is already well under way and 3D Systems have already been out to customers discussing how they can implement the technology into the manufacturing process. The plan is to engage with lead customers in the next two quarters and then go all out with the new product in early 2017.
Hull jokes: “Who knows what we’ll do next, the SLA Bot-3?”