Image source: Nanofabrica, Israel
The disruptive nature of additive manufacturing (AM) has been recognized throughout industry for a number of years. At its inception, 3D printing (known also as Additive manufacturing) was just that, a technology that allowed the production of prototypes in a cost-effective and timely fashion direct from 3D CAD data. However, it was when the technology matured and began to rival traditional production technologies that its disruptive potential was fully appreciated.
This has been the case for many years in all industry sectors except the micro manufacturing sector – until recently!
Throughout industry, there has been a growing demand for miniaturization of products and components for many years, whether this has been driven by cost saving requirements, the need for increased functionality within smaller footprint products, or to help with such issues as light-weighting. Before the introduction of new 3D printers such as the Nanofabrica’s Tera 250 micro AM system, the inability of traditional AM processes to attain micron level tolerances repeatably meant that manufacturers had to rely on conventional production processes for miniature parts.
Micro AM solutions, however, has now redefined the future of micro part and component supply through a combination of hardware, software, and material developments that for the first time allows the AM process to be applied to the production of parts with micron tolerances repeatably.
Micro electrical connectors. Image source: Nanofabrica, Israel
So what does this mean for industry?
Well, the ramifications are profound. Traditional micro molding is ideally suited to extremely high volume runs, due in no small part to the requirement for extremely costly and time-consuming micro tools. The expense associated with micro tooling means that only when parts are mass produced in the millions will it be cost-effective. OEMs requiring prototype, small, or medium volume runs are left with limited options but can now use micro 3D printing technology to manufacture smaller numbers of parts cost-effectively.
AM requires no tooling, and therefore provides an agile and attractive alternative to legacy production processes when it comes to lower volume runs. In addition, AM is agnostic to geometric complexity, which means that it stimulates innovation as it opens up the production of parts and components impossible via traditional manufacturing technologies.
But what about the attainment of the Holy Grail when it comes to AM, a technology that is viable in terms of cost, accuracy, and repeatability for true mass manufacturing applications. Here again, new innovative systems are breaking new ground due to material developments that open up the possibility to manufacture robust micro-molds.
Until now, AM produced micro-molds have been regarded as sub-optimal when viewed through the prism of surface finish, precision, accuracy, and repeatability, and also in terms of the limited number of materials that can be processed. AM systems reaches micron-level resolution which means high surface finish, and the requirements of tooling can be achieved without the need to cut steel.
Micro parts AM. Image source: Nanofabrica, Israel
Solutions such as Nanofabrica's AM system has achieved ground-breaking successes shooting towards 1000 parts off a single micro-mold made using its technology. Molds typically take about an hour to manufacture, cost in the order of $20, and have been used successfully on a traditional 35 ton injection moulding machine using pressures of 400 bar at 230°C.
The ability to now really think of volume production without the necessity to fabricate timely and expensive hard steel tools for injection molding is tantalising for many industry players. The creation of multiple, inexpensive, and rapid to create DRSTs means that true mass manufacturing is within grasp via AM.
So the future roadmap for micro AM is clear, and means the ability to create geometrically complex and innovative products with micron tolerances in a timely fashion and cost-effectively in volumes of 1 to 1 million plus. This is truly ground-breaking and disruptive for any companies that are manufacturing at the micro level.