Dubbed the ‘second industrial revolution’ by New Scientist, 3D printing is transforming the way we live and work and has already been adopted by a wide range of major industries for innovation, prototyping and product development purposes.
Some estimates suggest that the 3D printing industry could be worth as much as $20 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020, up from ~$3 billion in 2013.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), returned to the headlines last month with the FDA’s approval of the first 3D printed pharmaceutical pill. In a world first, Spritam (levetiracetam) — a drug to control epileptic seizures — will be produced by pharmaceutical company Aprecia using 3D printing technology.
The use of 3D printing in this instance allowed the company to create a more porous pill that dissolves more quickly on contact with liquid, making it easier for patients to swallow high doses.
At Linkam we hate to be left behind when it comes to new technology so a couple of years ago we invested in our very own 3D printer to see how it could help us, and in turn help you.
Our printer is from market leaders Stratasys and uses the same technology that brought you Robocop, Ironman and Jurassic World's dinosaurs.
The Stratasys Fortus 250mc uses fluid deposition modelling (FDM) technology. This builds objects layer-by-layer from the bottom up by heating and extruding thermoplastic filament.
Here’s how the process works at Linkam:
1. Our R&D team create a component using Computer-aided design (CAD) software.
2. Computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software reads the 3D CAD file, and calculates a route to extrude thermoplastic and any necessary support material.
3. The 3D printer heats the thermoplastic to a semi-liquid state and extrudes an ultra-fine thread along the route. Where support is needed, the printer deposits a removable material that acts as scaffolding.
4. The support material is broken away or dissolved, and the component is ready to use.
What are the advantages over conventional techniques?
Firstly, user time is significantly reduced when compared to conventional machining inputs and processes.
Secondly, it enables the production of lightweight optimised components with complex geometries and cavities that are problematic, or even impossible, to make with traditional techniques.
There is also far less waste. Traditional manufacturing relies on a subtractive process that often removes as much as 95% of the raw material, whereas additive machines use the exact amount of material required for production.
And finally, when the need arises, we can send prototype components to our customer to ensure the part fits their system.
How is it helping us?
While we will still continue to machine our finished products conventionally, this technology has proved invaluable for prototyping and product development purposes. It allows our research and development team to test definitively whether a new concept will be usable, particularly in terms of assembly and accessibility, without having to spend 2-3 weeks machining the product. During prototype creation it can mean that limitations of traditional machining and cutter access no longer apply, and even that several machined parts can be combined into one.
Additionally, there is less potential for error when developers have access to physical, tactile components, rather than just a digital concept, and a physical model early on in the cycle helps to convey design intent to the whole team… seeing is believing!
3D printing also reduces the demand for machining time. At Linkam we use traditional, small-scale, in-house manufacturing techniques so this is a big advantage. Ultimately, the use of 3D printing in product development should allow us to get new products to the market more quickly.
Some items, for example jigs & fixtures and our new stage stands, are now purpose designed to be created via 3D printing, and we have recently been able to produce two integral components for our correlative stage (CMS196) that would otherwise be very challenging to make.
What about custom designs?
We are often approached by scientists and OEMs looking to design custom solutions for analytical limitations in their work and instrumentation. Many of our now standardized systems started out as an idea brought to us by a scientist either dissatisfied with what was available, or looking to create something completely new.
We work very closely with our customers, creating sketches, designs and prototypes which are continually refined until the customer is happy. The use of 3D printing allows us to create prototypes more quickly, and get feedback on the design from the user, before committing it to a machined product.
Last but not least, it means we can provide exact scale replicas of our existing stages and stage clamps to prospective customers, to ensure compatibility with existing equipment before placing an order. If this is something that sounds like it might be of interest to you, please get in touch with a member of our team.
It’s safe to say, we’re big fans!