Mar. 15, 2015 | By Kira

Last December we reported on 3D Systems’ high-speed, continuous, 3D printingconcept, which was predicted to set a new bar for mass-customization product manufacturing. Now, Dutch company TNO has revealed their own flexible production platform for additive manufacturing technologies that can produce complex products, each customized in some way, while increasing print speeds by up to 10 times compared to traditional stand-alone systems.

TNO is an independent research organization based in the Netherlands that develops a wide range of technology applications, from building and environments to high-tech systems and materials. Their latest pilot line concept applies the continuous operation principle to 3D printing processes, meaning that it is capable of multiple passes under one print head, and that many different materials can be deposited in a single pass. In addition, the platform is full flexible in the sense that commercial available equipment can be connected directly to the line. The company has stated that this pilot line is a part of their vision for the future of additive production.

“When you look at a lot of these current additive manufacturing processes, they’re very sequential. They first deposit a layer of powder, second they do some preheating, third they finally do some printing or some laser sintering,” said René Houben of TNO. “You can imagine, each process step is in fact waiting on the other process steps to finish. That is an enormous lack of time. All this time you’re not producing, you’re not building.”

To make up for this, the research team aimed to flip the efficiency ratio on its head: “Instead of having a system which is stationary for 90% of the time, let’s use it for 90%, and suddenly you increase the speed and productivity of such a system to an extreme extent.”

The result is that their machine is up to 10 times faster than comparable systems, yet it doesn’t rely on adding a large number of additional print heads. In fact, the number of print heads doesn’t change—they are just used more efficiently. From a technical perspective, the machine consists of 100 identical 75 x 50 mm platforms that move on a continuous belt at a constant speed of 2 m/s, where they encounter a variety of different production elements. TNO has developed a range of print heads for ink-jetting different materials on the fly, consisting mainly of UV-curably polymers or conductive ink with droplet sizes as small as 30 microns, enabling features as small as 80 microns with a placement accuracy of 0.1 mm. While they have started with thermoplastic materials, Houden said metals will be a possibility in the future.

The machine works in two modes. The first option is to set up the machine as a production facility for fully finished products, such as chip cards, batteries or smart gadgets, wherein each object can be customized and unique. Alternatively, the pilot line can be used for post-processing semi-finished products, polishing, gluing or lasering in one continuous motion. In addition, the pick-and-place robots or surface finishing equipment can be easily integrated into the line.

TNO has also developed a print head that can process polymers with viscosities up to 500 MPa at room temperature, a significant improvement over most commercially available systems that mainly operate around 20 MPa. According to the developers, the higher the polymer viscosity, the better the functional properties of the end product. A major advantage of the system therefore is that it facilitates the shift from prototyping to manufacturing.

As a flexible, commercial-scale 3D printing factory, TNO’s pilot line can be adapted for a variety of manufacturing industries, particularly those that produce unique, customized products. For example, the machine could be used to produce hearing aids or dental elements tailored to the wearer. Pharmaceutical companies could use it to customize the ingredients in pills while keeping strict control of production parameters. Chip cards, batteries, or other complex electronic gadgets can also be churned out at previously un-imaginable speeds.

As a research organization, TNO sees their mission as exploring, developing, and creating these technological innovations in order to advance their vision. “We build this machine as a demonstration to show people it’s not just fiction. It can really be built,” said Houden. However, they are currently looking for investment opportunities from commercial companies to jointly co-develop the concept further into an industrial application and bring it to the market.   



Posted in 3D Printers


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Daan Goedkoop wrote at 3/16/2015 3:17:03 PM:

Over three years ago I was at the 3D Printing Event in Eindhoven, during the Dutch Design Week. There, I attended a TNO presentation where they presented this exact 'racetrack' printer. This tells me two things: - This article is three years late. - 3D systems inspired their printer on the TNO printer, not the other way around. This is a video where TNO's machine is seen in praktice: It dates form December 2011... So can we maybe reconsider where the idea for this machine came from? TNO instead of 3D Systems?

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