Aug 17, 2016 | By Alec

Has 3D printing technology matured, or are we just catching glimpses of what is possible? Depending on where you’re standing within the 3D printing community, it’s a question that could be difficult to answer. Desktop 3D printing has certainly been criticized for being too slow and too limited in what it can do, while some market specialists are saying that desktop FDM 3D printers have already ‘peaked’ a year ago. Metal 3D printers relying on laser systems, meanwhile, have been deemed too expensive and too limited for widespread use. So is this it?

The short answer is no. If the first half of 2016 is anything to go by, 3D printing as whole is only just getting started. Just over the past few months, researchers from all over the world have pioneered technological breakthroughs that are about to transform production as we know it. 3D printing is rapidly becoming cheaper, quicker, more accurate and more open to new materials and applications than ever before. From large-scale defense manufacturing to 3D printed microscopic metal circuits, it’s all becoming possible. At this rate, 3D printing is heading towards a golden age of manufacturing. To illustrate just how rapidly the technology has been changing, 3ders.org looks back at twelve of the biggest tech innovations of 2016.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #1: microscopic mass-production through 3D screen printing

To start off this list, we are actually going back in time to 1993, when the idea for 3D screen printing was first patented. But this technology by the Dresden-based Fraunhofer IFAM institute was only ready for primetime earlier this year, and takes 3D printing to an unprecedented small scale. Capable of mass producing micrometer geometries from a wide range of materials, 3D screen printing can be used to develop microsystems for sectors such as energy and heat management, mechanical engineering, biotechnology, electronics, and of course the automotive and aerospace industries. Fuel cell components, catalyst carriers, micromechanics, electrodes, implants, jewelry and other small light weight constructions are all on the agenda.

Most importantly, this 3D printing tech can be combined with a very wide range of materials, from metals, ceramics, to glass and even multi-materials, and it reaches insane speeds: up to 1.500.000 parts per year, with 7 million as a target goal. This complex 3D screen printing tech relies on an opening between two sheets, through which materials are extruded. This can be stacked into layers just as any 3D printed material, and is sintered afterwards. But the big difference is that this screen movement allows for very precise structures (down to a possible structure size of 60 µm), and doesn’t require support structures. Wall thickness can easily go down to the 50 micron range, making this a very potent technology indeed. Once commercialized, 3D screen printing could lead the way towards microscopic mass production.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #2: ceramic 3D printing with SLA tech

Of course there’s nothing new about ceramic 3D printing, but at the beginning of the year Malibu-based HRL Laboratories unveiled a technique that we had never seen before: using a more precise stereolithography technique to produce incredibly detailed, strong and heat-resistant ceramic 3D prints. “We have a pre-ceramic resin that you can print like a polymer, then you fire the polymer and it converts to a ceramic,” senior scientist Tobias Schaedler said at the time. “There is some shrinkage involved, but it's very uniform so you can predict it.”

This is a huge breakthrough because ceramic has many appealing properties – even though these are hardly realized by FDM 3D printing. In fact, the material becomes very susceptible to cracks and fractures as well, while only oxide ceramic materials with low melting points are currently available. But through this SLA innovation, ceramic suddenly becomes a very appealing engineering material with fantastic toughness and detail levels. Even electron microscopy is used to ensure the final results. Crucial components for airplanes, spacecraft and a wide range electromechanical systems can now thus be 3D printed in ceramic – perfect for the defense industry.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #3: Continuous Scaled Manufacturing at 90 inches per minute

But if Star Trek’s replicator technology is your guideline for 3D printing revolutions, look no further than Continuous Scaled Manufacturing (CSM) by Idaho-based startup Continuous Composites. This revolutionary technique can rapidly 3D print and cure various fibers, metals and plastics simultaneously to form complete, functional parts at a moment’s notice. Already open to carbon fiber, Kevlar, fiberglass, fiber optics, and copper while using up to 16 different extruders at once, this technology currently 3D prints with speeds of up to 90 inches a minute in free space. In the future, the company is even aiming at 1,200 inches a minute.

Most importantly, the molecular bonds created with through their curing systems ensure that each part is insanely strong. This paves the way for a wide range of new 3D printing applications, from intelligent IoT devices with embedded copper wires to aerospace and automotive parts and even custom-woven ballistics armor. Continuous Composites is currently validating their technology and is looking at commercialization options.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #4: 3D printed membranes for water purification

But not all of 2016’s innovations are rock solid. For Penn State researchers have developed a custom 3D photolithographic process similar to stereolithography to 3D print micro-patterned anion exchange membranes. The membranes, patterned for improved performance, could be used in fuel cells and batteries and for water purification, desalination, and heavy metal particle removal. This remarkable breakthrough was published in a paper in the ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces journal.

Of course such membranes already exist, though these are usually flat and smooth. But through 3D printing, ion import qualities can be improved and a variety of functions can be instilled into the membranes. While already possible with laborious etching processes, 3D printing is much quicker and yields superior results. According to tests carried out on the 3D printed membranes, the patterns also helped to increase conductivity by a factor of two to three. The Penn State team is currently working to optimize the 3D geometries while also experimenting with new materials. If successful, a whole new engineering avenue could be opened up.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #5: NASA’s circuit boards made with aerosol jet 3D printing

Of course NASA will never be absent from such a list and their aerosol jet 3D printing (direct-write manufacturing) breakthrough for circuit boards and detector assemblies is definitely revolutionary. As it can be a huge challenge to pack all necessary electronic components onto a circuit board, it can be advantageous to print the board rather than piece its individual components together. That, in a nutshell, is what NASA engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center are currently working on.

Their answer? Aerosol jet 3D printing, which produces these electronic board assemblies in as little as two days and which can be much more complex and consistent than conventional assemblies. Instead of extruding plastic, this 3D printing tech essentially uses carrier gas and print heads to deposit a precisely controlled aerosol composed of metal particles, including silver, gold, platinum, or aluminum. With droplets of just 10 microns wide, it’s incredibly accurate and can build very small, dense and seemingly impossible geometries on just about every surface. While still in an investigative phase, NASA is confident that they will be able to print antennas, wiring harnesses, and other hardware directly onto spacecraft in the near future.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #6: The all-in-one casting and forging metal 3D printer

But industrial 3D printing isn’t just about the small scale, as a team of Chinese researchers from the Huazhong University of Science proved earlier this year with the Micro Forging & Casting Sync Composite Device. This revolutionary all-in-one casting and forging metal 3D printer combines metal 3D printing, casting and forging in a single huge device (5.5 × 4.2 × 1.5 m build platform), and produces high quality parts while eliminating excess material waste and reducing equipment costs. What’s more, it does so with a range of standard metals including titanium alloy (for defense applications) and steel (for use in nuclear power stations).

This truly remarkable 3D printer, masterminded by professor Zhang Haiou, thus offers an alternative to both laser 3D printing and conventional manufacturing techniques. What’s more, the results are excellent: the finished parts feature superior strength and toughness properties, an improved product lifecycle, and higher reliability. According to its developers, the technology can even be used to create thin-walled metal structures with a surface roughness of 0.02 mm—the level of general machining processing. It’s hardly surprising that the Chinese defense industry already adopted the Micro Forging & Casting Sync Composite Device for airplane part development.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #7: Mars-bound SSS 3D printing by USC professor Behrokh Khoshnevis

But so far 2016 has not just been about our planet, as numerous 3D printing innovations that will support NASA’s Mission to Mars have also been developed. Head and shoulders above the rest is Selective Separation Sintering (SSS) by aerospace engineering specialist and University of Southern California professor Behrokh Khoshnevis. This breakthrough 3D printing process relies on materials readily found on the surface of Mars, and is a low-cost and widely applicable solution that brings Mars so much closer to home.

In a nutshell, SSS 3D printing is a powder-based method for building smaller objects, such as bricks or interlocking tiles, but can also be used for more functional objects such as metallic components. Featuring a robotic fabrication process that uses high melting-point ceramics, such as magnesium oxide (very common on Mars and the moon), and planetary soil, it is perfect for objects with high heat and pressure resistance properties. “SSS is the only powder-based process that can effectively work in zero gravity condition and as such it is ideal for use in the ISS for fabrication of spare parts and tools,” Khoshnevis said.

But aside from being open to conditions in space, SSS is simply a very good 3D printing technology too. It functions at a very high speed, doesn’t require any expensive laser or electron beam technologies, and certainly rivals (or exceeds) existing technologies in terms of accuracy. Most importantly, it’s far cheaper than launching existing parts to Mars, making this a crucial innovation for the new renaissance of space exploration.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #8: FJIRSM’s new resin 3D printing speed record of 600mm/h

Despite these game-changing innovations, the first half of 2016 has remained comparable to 2015 in at least one respect: speed is still the name of the game. While 2015 saw a new 500mm/h. record being set by Carbon3D’s CLIP resin 3D printing tech, Chinese researchers from the Fujian Institute of Research on the Structure of Matter (FJIRSM, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) already broke that record earlier this year. Building on CLIP’s 3D printing technology, a team led by Ling WenXiong set a new record of 600mm/h – allowing them to ‘pull’ 60mm high 3D objects from a resin tank in just six minutes. In contrast, many conventional SLA 3D printers need at least 10 hours to do so.

To set this new record, the Chinese team essentially improved on CLIP’s approach, which relies on a resin tank with a window for UV light and a ‘dead zone’ which ensures that the rest of the resin wont solidify. In contrast, the FJIRSM researchers added a semi-permeable transparent element to the bottom of the resin tank that is fixed to the illumination path of the light source. This semi-permeable transparent element has a higher-than-average oxygen transmittance rate, and therefore allows more oxygen or air to be used as a curing inhibitor, widening the ‘dead zone’ and preventing the 3D object from attaching to the window.

Through this improved tank design, this high-speed, continuous additive manufacturing method can reach printing speeds of up to 600mm per hour (1 cm per minute) or more. As time is money, it’s a breakthrough that can make resin 3D printing as a whole more efficient and cost-effective.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #9: the taming of glass with 6-axis glass-printing

This 6-axis glass-printing was actually announced in late December 2015. But for its success at making glass 3D printable, this technology definitely merited an inclusion on this list. Developed by Virginia Tech, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Collaborative Glass Robotics Laboratory, it is essentially a very roboticized 3D printer setup that completely integrates the unusual properties of molten glass by learning from the age-old craft of glass blowing.

So how does it work? While most 3D printing setups move the extruder in specific patterns, 6-axis glass-printing actually uses computational design and robotics to move the build plate in specific patterns to catch the long strands of molten glass. Objects are thus formed by stacking the strands as they solidify. While the results are bit crude, it creates hitherto impossible geometries made from glass. While not yet ready for commercial use due to a low resolution, it certainly paves the way towards the industrial 3D printing of a very widely used construction material.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #10: 3D printable inks made from metals and low-cost rust

At times, it even seems as though 2016 is the year in which all 3D printing conventions are thrown out of the window. This is perfectly illustrated by a team of Northwestern engineers, who removed all lasers and electron beams from the metal 3D printing equation. Instead, they chose a simple syringe-extrusion technique – much like an FDM 3D printer. But unlike a desktop contraption, they are 3D printing inks made from metal particles and are building complex and more uniform architectures than previously possible with metal. Most importantly, it’s cheaper and faster than conventional metal 3D printing.

At its core, this ink-bed 3D printing approach uncouples the two-step process of printing the structure and then fusing its layers. Instead, they are rapidly extruding room-temperature inks made from (a mixture of) metal powders, solvents and a binder. It even works with metal oxides, or rust – very cheap, lightweight and stable. Once extruded, the liquid inks solidify instantaneously as each layer fuses with the last, enabling large objects to be quickly created and, since they haven’t yet been heated, immediately handled. A furnace is finally used for sintering, creating very strong bonds that are perfect for industrial applications, such as 3D printed batteries, solid-oxide fuel cells, medical implants and a whole lot more. Who needs a laser?

2016 3D printing breakthrough #11: freeform microscopic metal laser-DIW 3D printing

But lasers are not completely outdated, as a team of Harvard researchers proved with their freeform microscopic metal 3D printing solution, which is perfect for building complex electronics for the customizable electronics of tomorrow. This fantastic technique was developed by researchers led by Professor Jennifer A. Lewis, and relies on adapted direct ink writing (DIW) 3D printing techniques. It essentially combines the patterning and annealing processes of metal production in a single step, using an extruder and laser system that can move along the x, y and z axes. Combined with a rotary build platform, it allows for ‘on-the-fly’ free-form creation of microscopic metal structures.

Not only are the resultant structures far more complex than other small-size 3D printed metal creations, but they are also inexpensive to produce thanks to the high annealing speed. Hemispherical shapes, spiral motifs and a lot more complex geometries are easily realized – even decorative butterflies made from wires narrower than a hair’s width (anywhere from <1 µm to 20 µm in size) are possible. Furthermore, the patterned structures are excellent conductors, rivaling the properties of bulk silver. This paves the way for a huge amount of commercial manufacturing possibilities, especially when it comes to customizable electronic wearables.

2016 3D printing breakthrough #12: FluidFM 3D printing for microscopic support-free metal objects

But Harvard is not the only institute working on microscopic 3D printing, as a new Swiss innovation called FluidFM micro 3D printing takes metal manufacturing to an even smaller scale. This patent-pending innovation is the brainchild of ETH Zurich, and is currently being expanded upon by spin-off startup Cytosurge. In a nutshell, FluidFM allows for the 3D printing of very complex microscopic geometries without the need of support structures. And here small really means small; the aperture of the print-head alone is just 300 nanometres in size (500 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair).

Whereas existing 3D microprinting processes on such a scale require pre-made support structures, FluidFM doesn’t need any at all. With this technique, the forces acting on the tip of the 3D printing pipette can be measured via the deflection of the leaf spring on which the micropipette is mounted. These measurements can then be used as signal feedback and as project developer Luca Hirt suggests, “unlike other 3D printing systems, ours can detect which areas of the object have already been printed. This will make it easier to further automate and scale the printing process.”

As a result, support-free and very complex metal geometries can be produced relatively quickly. Currently focusing on 3D printable copper sulphate, the Swiss specialists say that the same principle can be applied to other metals and possibly even polymers and composite materials. While still under development, FluidFM 3D printing is expected to become a huge hit in the semiconductor and medical industries, among others. If 2016 has proved anything, it’s that microscopic 3D printing has finally become a manufacturing reality.

 

 

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