3D printing has the potential to revolutionize product design and manufacturing in a vast range of fields, from custom components for consumer products, to 3D-printed bone and medical implants. But the process also creates a large amount of expensive and unsustainable waste and takes a long time, making it difficult for 3D printing to be implemented on a wide scale.
Each time a 3D printer produces custom objects — especially unusually shaped products — it also needs to print supports, which are printed stands that balance the object as the printer creates layer-by-layer, helping maintain its shape integrity. These supports must be manually removed after printing, which requires finishing by hand and can result in shape inaccuracies or surface roughness. The materials the supports are made from often cannot be re-used, so they’re discarded, contributing to the growing problem of 3D-printed waste material.
Researchers have created a low-cost, reusable support method to reduce the need for 3D printers to print supports, improving cost-effectiveness and sustainability for 3D printing.
Traditional 3D printing using the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technique prints layer-by-layer directly onto a static metal surface. The new prototype instead uses a programmable, dynamically controlled surface made of moveable metal pins to replace the printed supports. The pins rise up as the printer progressively builds the product.
Testing of the new prototype has shown it saves about 35% in materials used to print objects. For standard FDM printers, the materials cost is about $50 per kilogram but for bioprinting, it is close to $50 per gram. Saving 30% on material that would have gone into printing supports is a huge cost saving for 3D printing for biomedical purposes, for example. In addition to the environmental and cost impacts of material wastage, traditional 3D printing processes using supports is also time-consuming.
Similar prototypes developed in the past relied on individual motors to raise each of the mechanical supports, resulting in highly energy-intensive products that were also much more expensive to purchase and thus not cost-effective for 3D printers. If a prototype required 100 moving pins and the cost of each motor was about $10, the entire cost is $1,000, in addition to 25 control boards to control 100 different motors. The entire build could cost well over $10,000.
The team’s prototype works by running each of its individual supports from a single motor that moves a platform. The platform raises groups of metal pins at the same time, making it a cost-effective solution. Based on the product design, the program’s software would tell the user where they need to add a series of metal tubes into the base of the platform. The position of these tubes would then determine which pins would raise to defined heights to best support the 3D printed product, while also creating the least amount of waste from printed supports. At the end of the process, the pins can be easily removed without damaging the product. The system could also be easily adapted for large-scale manufacturing such as in the automotive and aerospace industries.