Oct 30, 2017 | By Benedict

Researchers from Michigan Technological University have conducted a study into the cost of 3D printing consumer goods using flexible filament. The researchers 3D printed 20 flexible products in NinjaFlex filament, analyzing the overall cost and technical feasibility of the 3D printed items.

Michigan Tech researchers used a Lulzbot Mini 3D printer to put NinjaFlex filament to the test

Flexible filaments have opened up a world of opportunities for 3D printer users. Once faced with the prospect of brittle and breakable 3D printed parts, makers can now easily make rubbery 3D printed items for a range of practical applications: mechanical parts, soft grips, and even the tires of an RC car.

But are objects made from flexible 3D printing filaments as good as their molded, off-the-shelf counterparts? Moreover, are they worth the cost? Those are two questions that intrigued Aubrey L. Woern and Joshua M. Pearce, two researchers at Michigan Technological University who recently carried out a study into the effectiveness of functional objects made from flexible filament.

Their extensive study involved the 3D printing and testing of 20 common consumer objects, all of which are made from flexible materials and which can be recreated using the popular NinjaFlex 3D printer filament. In addition to seeing how each 3D printed object performed at its designated task, the researchers attempted to see how cost-effective it was to 3D print the object in comparison to buying it off the shelf.

“The 3D printed products were quantified by print time, electrical energy use, and filament consumption by mass to determine the cost to fabricate with a commercial RepRap 3D printer,” Woern and Pearce explain. “Printed parts were inspected and when necessary tested for their targeted application to ensure technical feasibility.”

For their tests, the researchers used a Lulzbot Mini FDM 3D printer with a FlexyStruder hotend. This equipment was chosen not because it was the very best available, but because it represented a reasonable investment choice for the average non-specialist consumer.

As for the 3D printed consumer goods, the researchers selected a range of objects including automotive parts, home goods, and a few wearable items and accessories. All of these simple objects could be printed on the Lulzbot Mini at a layer height of between 200 and 400 microns, and were selected based on their functionality, printability (size, shape), and their having a hardness of 85 Shore A—to match the chosen NinjaFlex 3D printing filament.

One 3D printed object analyzed by the researchers was a GoPro camera skin

Once all these objects had been 3D printed on the Lulzbot Mini, the first task for the researchers was to assess their quality. Luckily for 3D printer users everywhere, the Michigan Tech duo were satisfied with their findings, reporting that the 3D printed objects were “both functional and aesthetically acceptable” when printed with appropriate printer settings for their respective applications.

More importantly, the researchers found that the cost savings associated with 3D printing these consumer goods were significant.

Woern and Pearce found that commercial flexible filament is “economically as well as technically feasible for providing a means of distributed home-scale manufacturing of flexible products,” reporting 75 per cent savings when compared to the “least expensive commercially equivalent products” and a whopping 92 per cent when compared to “high market priced products.”

That’s a huge advertisement for flexible 3D printing filaments right there, but the Michigan Tech researchers even calculated how worthwhile it would be for consumers to invest in their own 3D printing equipment based on these findings.

“Roughly, 160 flexible objects must be substituted to recover the capital costs to print flexible materials,” the researchers say. “However, as previous work has shown, the Lulzbot Mini 3D printer used in this study would provide more than a 100 percent [return on investment] printing one object a week from hard thermoplastics. The [FlexyStruder] upgrade needed to provide flexible filament capabilities can be accomplished with 37 average substitution flexible prints.”

Not content with savings of 75 and 95 per cent over off-the-shelf items, Woern and Pearce also looked at ways in which consumers can sidestep the cost of buying spools of filament. (Sorry, NinjaFlex!)

The Lulzbot Mini 3D printer was chosen for the study because of its affordability

According to the comprehensive 3D printing study, use of a pellet extruder and TPU pellets (rather than spools of filament) allows users to save up to 93 per cent over off-the-shelf goods—a small improvement, but one that could be significant in the long run.

Even more striking are the researchers’ calculations regarding recycled filament. They estimate that by using recycled TPE filament processed with a Recyclebot filament extruder, 3D printer users can achieve cost savings of a phenomenal 99 per cent over purchasing off-the-shelf items, as well as doing a bit of good for the environment while they’re at it.

Thinking about going to the shop to buy your next iPhone case, oil-resistant gasket, or ergonomic tool grip? Perhaps investing in a 3D printer and recycled filament extruder would be a better bet.

Although the numbers sound impressive, Woern and Pearce do offer a few words of warning about their findings. For one, they say the oeuvre of 3D printable designs made for flexible filament is still relatively small, which meant there was a limited number of functional objects they could attempt 3D printing.

They also note that the market prices used in this study are likely to fluctuate. However, these price changes will ultimately make 3D printing even more cost-effective, with the price of both 3D printing equipment and flexible filament likely to drop substantially as competition increases.

“This study showed that NinjaFlex filament, even being at a high price point, can be economically viable and appears to be technically feasible for providing a means of distributed home-scale manufacturing of flexible products,” the researchers conclude.

Their research paper, “Distributed Manufacturing of Flexible Products: Technical Feasibility and Economic Viability,” has been published in DMPI Technologies. Find it here.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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