Dec 23, 2015 | By Alec
The number of 3D printable materials seems to expand every other week, but in most cases it involves variations of plastics exhibiting slightly different characteristics for different purposes. While those are very useful indeed, a team of German engineers from the Hasso Plattner Institute have taken things into a completely different direction. I think we’ve all dreamt of 3D printing acrylic in one way or another, but they have actually built a machine that can do that. Called the LaserStacker, it doesn’t exactly 3D print acrylic, but instead cuts, welds and merges existing acrylic sheets into complex 3D shapes to achieve the same effect.
This intriguing machine was built at The Hasso Plattner Institute (also known as HPI), affiliated with the University of Potsdam in Germany – an institute known for developing very interesting high tech innovations. This LaserStacker was built by a team of engineers including Udayan Umapathi, Hsiang-Ting Chen, Stefanie Mueller, Ludwig Wall, Anna Seufert and Patrick Baudisch.
And as they explain, the LaserStacker is essentially an attempt to give laser cutters – a staple in any makerspace – a few more manufacturing possibilities. “Laser cutters are useful for rapid prototyping because they are fast. However, they only produce planar 2D geometry. One approach to creating non-planar objects is to cut the object in horizontal slices and to stack and glue them,” they say. While this usually means assembly by hand, and thus losing the fast fabrication ability, the Laser Stacker instead does all that work automatically. “The key idea is to use the laser cutter to not only cut but also to weld,” they say.
So how does it work? Well, users simply place a stack of acrylic sheets into the cutting machine. “Users place not one acrylic sheet, but a stack of acrylic sheets into their cutter. In a single process, LaserStacker cuts each individual layer to shape (through all layers above it), welds layers by melting material at their interface, and heals undesired cuts in higher layers. When users take out the object from the laser cutter, it is already assembled,” Udayan Umapathi explains to 3ders.org.
It’s a fairly simple, but ingenious process that is perhaps best illustrated by the pair of scissors visible below. Made in the LaserStacker editor (an extension to SketchUp), it is exported to the LaserStacker and sliced into layers. “To fabricate the scissors, the user places a stack with the appropriate number of acrylic sheets (here three) into the laser cutter, loads both files into the laser cutter control panel, and executes the job,” the team explains. “The laser cutter produces the scissors in a single integrated process consisting of cutting all layers, welding the layers that should be connected, and healing the undesired cuts. When the user arrives at the cutter, the pair of scissors is already assembled.”
It's an efficient tool that combines the best of CAD design with the material advantages of laser cutting acrylic, while its automated cutting, welding and healing process is very impressive indeed. And as some objects -especially functional ones – are simply more effective when made in acrylic rather than in PLA filament, we can definitely see how the LaserStacker could be a useful addition to any makerspace.
Posted in 3D Printing Technology
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