Oct. 13, 2014 | By Alec

As anyone within the 3D printing community would confirm, 3D printing technology is a wonderful innovation that is changing manufacturing processes in just about any industry you can think of. While superior to traditional production methods for many reasons, it does remain inferior to traditional manufacturing in a few ways.

Significantly, the layer-by-layer manufacturing that so many 3D printers utilize create structures that just aren't as strong as traditional objects or even the composites found in nature. Layer-by-layer structures, while easy to construct and very useful for prototyping, are only as strong as the bonds that hold the layers together. Traditional manufacturing processes instead consist of fiber composites (think of spider webs, birds' nests or clothes), that consist of numerous overlapping strands that divide weight or pressure evenly. Consequently, these constructs are far sturdier, more flexible and far superior as insulating material.

We know what you're thinking: why shouldn't 3D printers be capable of constructing composites, rather than layers? Fortunately, that is exacty what IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) student Sebastian Morales has been working on as part of an intriguing undergraduate project called 'The Bug'. While not quite capable of printing intricate composite constructions yet, he has done some wonderful work in exploring these technological options. A while ago, he shared his interesting results on Instructables.

As he explained in his blog post, Morales wanted to explore a fabrication project that sought to emulate more natural processes. ' Fascinated by nature's way to fabricate, I got inspired to create the Bug, a 3D printer-like robot that can create using composite fibers. Fiber composites have been present for thousands of years now, they have evolved significantly into technologically advanced materials that today offer advantages like strength-to-weight ratio, flexibility or even insulating capabilities.'

Primarily, his goal was to avoid using layering as a production process. He rightly believes that 3D printing's potential would greatly increase if it became capable of printing fibre composites to develop structures. Significantly, their overlapping and multidirectional nature would give objects a 'a higher strength-to-weight ratio.'

He set about constructing 3D printing capable of doing just that. After testing a variety of printers and materials, he settled for printing composite structures in UV-cured resins, as these would solidify fast enough to achieve the desired results, while still capable of retaining shapes.

As for 3D printers, he relied on the laboratory. 'Realizing that I was not going to have enough time to design my own robotic CNC machine I decided I should try to get an existing one. I did some research into some repraps, the shapeoko and others, at the end Christmas came early with the donation by Ph.D Matt Spenko, a Fab at Home, an early 3D printer made by a group of students a couple years ago and left behind in the lab.'

This became 'The Bug' 3D printer used in his experiments. 'Think of this machine as a very friendly sculpting spider.' He then set about generating the composite shapes efficiently, which perhaps holds an even bigger challenge before this type of printing can be actually applied industrially.

This also bothered Morales. 'At the beginning, I didn't have an efficient way to generate the path, I had to select the points almost by hand. For this reason I came decided that the first print should be a simple 3 dimensional bell curve. I simplified the surface into a series of curves that intersected at the center and decided to give it a shot.' These results can be seen above.

Since then, Morales has moved on to more complex methods of generating composite shapes. Using Processing 2, an application for creating shapes, he became able of transforming 3D models into composite shapes and paths for his Bug printer to follow while printing. 'It went from a very chaotic randomness to a more smooth organized randomness, if that makes any sense. I also decided that it would work best if the machine would first make a supporting grid first and then it bonded the surfacing lines on top.'

As can be seen in the Youtube clips above, this did allow Morales to print basic composite structures. However, the road to printing sturdy structures superior to layered 3D prints is obviously still very long. Morales's project hasn't yet progressed any further, but the Bug does bring up some very intriguing points and possibilities.

Does composite printing, rather than layered printing, improve the quality of 3D printed objects? If further research and innovation makes it possible to print these shapes accurately, affordably and at a highly-detailed level, 3D printing would definitely benefit greatly. Could 'The Bug' hold the key to making 3D printing a main-stream manufacturing process?

Posted in 3D Printers

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Sebastian Morales wrote at 10/16/2014 7:12:01 AM:

Hi, Thank you for featuring my work, I am flattered. Please make a single correction, I was an Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) student not an ITT.

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