July 14, 2015 | By Alec

While 3D printers are already making custom prototyping easier, quicker and more affordable than ever before, one British team of scientists have developed a method that could make things even easier. The Design and Prototyping Group of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) have developed a method for embedding solid objects such as electronics into resin objects while 3D printing them with an SLA machine. To prove what it can do, they have 3D printed a USB memory stick by 3D printing the case around the circuitry, instead of making two halves and gluing them together.

The AMRC is part of the University of Sheffield, and is one of the most important research institutes in the field of advanced production in Britain. And this team with the purpose of incorporating solid objects into the printing process themselves, they accepted quite a challenge. However, its advantages are obvious; not only could it make the production of, say, electronics easier and more efficient, embedding them during printing offers better protection from dust, liquids, impact and so on. More generally speaking, it obviously also optimizes material use and assembly time, as little post processing will be required. Unsurprisingly, medical applications could also widely benefit from this technique.

As they explain, the trick is in keeping very careful track of the number of layers, before pausing the machine and inserting whatever object or equipment you want. ‘Embedding components is carried out by removing any unnecessary support material within the file processing ‘3DManage’ software, associated with the 3D Systems ProJet 6000 SLA machine. The build is then paused at the relevant layer height to fully encapsulate the component,’ they explain.

For their process, they relied on a ProJet 6000 SLA machine that builds layer of 0.1 mm. ‘The build was paused and the component inserted at layer 70 (7 mm) because it provided a clearance of 0.2 mm between the component and the top face of the void. This ensured the leveller did not contact the component and cause part damage or a failed build. A clearance of 0.1 mm was applied to all sides of the part to ease insertion of the component,’ they explain. ‘Once the component is in place, the build resumes. The 0.1 mm and 0.2 mm clearance gaps around the component will be filled with uncured epoxy resin, which remains uncured until the post-processing operation of fully curing the part in the UV chamber.’

After this part was printed, essential post-processing work was carried out, including cleaning and removing support material. THE USB drive was then tested before curing. While an interesting concept, it does of course increase print times as the part essentially becomes twice as tall (instead of two halves 3D printed side by side), but that’s an easy pill to swallow.

It also wouldn’t work on all time of structures, simply due to the angles of parts. ‘To prevent a build failing, it is recommended that support structures are generated for features with angles greater than 36° from the vertical plane. Consequently, support structures have to be built for any horizontal feature with a void underneath. Inserting the component during the build process eliminates the need for support material in the void where the component will be placed because the component itself acts as the support structure,’ they advise.

Completed 'USB pen drive' test piece functioning correctly

All in all, it’s an interesting option to further explore, though the fact that only SLA 3D printers can be used to do so is obviously a limitation. But as they explain, the SLA process was chosen over other additive manufacturing processes such as FDM because low temperature resins are obviously far less likely to damage the electronics than plastics that have been heated to over 200 degrees Celsius. This also means the practical applicability isn’t fantastic (a SLA USB stick will be quite a bit more expensive than a regular version), but it definitely opens the way for further studies. We are already dreaming about 3D printing complete electronic objects with just the click of a button.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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A 3D Printing Grad Student wrote at 7/14/2015 6:28:18 PM:

Disney's Printed Optics project did this 3 years ago, embedding LEDs and sensors into their Objet prints. http://www.disneyresearch.com/project/printed-optics/

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