by Melissa Donovan
Additive manufacturing (AM) is used in many industries, like automotive and aerospace, medical, and beyond. While traditionally part of the prototyping process, today we see more production scaled up to create final pieces in the hundreds and thousands.
“Important changes occurred in the past two years that encouraged the adoption of three-dimensional (3D) printing for large-scale production. These include gaining expertise in 3D printing technology and processes, 3D printing hardware is less expensive, the business case for AM improved, and 3D printing technology improved scalability,” shares Elisa Teipel, Ph.D., chief development officer/co-founder, Essentium Inc.
With these improvements, more segments can benefit. For example, technology manufacturers in electronics, robotics, and computing are taking notice. As 3D printing advances and proper materials that can survive the demanding processing steps associated with electronics manufacturing come to light, the use of AM accelerates.
AM in Use
Components manufactured in technology production lines require custom jigs, fixtures, pallets, nests, and assembly aids. Traditionally, these were made with subtractive manufacturing like CNC milling, which results in long lead times and expensive tooling charges passed to the customer. In the last few years the use of AM has morphed in this segment.
“AM is changing all of this by allowing manufacturers to design jigs and fixtures to be 3D printed with advanced engineering-grade materials. Lead times can be reduced from weeks to hours, multi-component assemblies can be reduced into a single 3D printed part, and the cost savings in materials and man hours typically exceeds 90 percent. The key to all of this is proper materials that can survive the demanding processing steps,” explains Teipel.
AM in smart factories is also part of the allure. “Chasing this idea of a lights out factory that relies on automation—3D printing enables this technology. It sits at the intersection of physical and digital. Factories producing parts are highly advanced systems that benefit from 3D printing,” says Jonah Myerberg, co-founder and CTO, Desktop Metal, Inc.
While AM is used in prototyping, more companies are interested in adopting it for production. “This is due to advancements in 3D printing technologies and the introduction of new materials that are enabling improved efficiency and higher quality results. Thus, using AM as a production tool is now a highly viable pathway,” notes Scott Green, principal solutions leader, 3D Systems.
“AM focused on prototyping applications, but in the last few years more companies started using it for the production of customized functional parts in small series. This was achieved by understanding the importance of the hardware technology, material, and process,” agrees Yan Neugebauer, sales manager, Prodways Tech.
New materials allow AM to penetrate into electronics applications like integrated circuit trays, electrostatically dissipative (ESD) grippers, and ESD hand tools. “A Photocentric and Mechnano partnership enables the production of special resin that imparts ESD properties to AM components without loss in physical properties,” comments Paul Ruscoe, new business development director, Photocentric Ltd. (UK).
Beth Bornick, business development lead, Lithoz America LLC, says “AM has progressed from polymers to prototyping the look and feel of components to building end-use parts from a much wider variety of materials. Ceramic AM in particular gives manufacturers the ability to produce smooth, high-resolution ceramic components, such as electrical insulators and piezoelectrics, which have the same material characteristics as conventionally manufactured parts.”
Technology-related companies have “increased interest for achieving mass scaling, reduced lead time, and equivalent properties to traditional manufacturing methods,” shares Nanci Hardwick, CEO, MELD Manufacturing Corporation.
“Over the last few years, the number of use cases in the electronics, robotics, and computing segment has exponentially grown if we include circuit boards, sensors, robot grippers, end of arm (EOA) tooling, and IoT elements. The significant reasons are prototyping and iterating faster without outsourcing production and protecting your IP,” explains Marco Mattia Cristofori, head of product marketing, BigRep GmbH.
Despite the interest, “AM in electronics lags behind other industries probably due to the complexities involved in electronics, such as requirements on electrical properties—not only mechanical, as well as certification of materials by end customers and multi-material objects,” admits Ralph Birnbaum, director of business development, ioTech Group Ltd.
Manufacturers understand the benefits of using AM in prototyping and large-scale production of their products. They are compelled to learn more because of the technology’s design freedom, cost savings, and eco-friendly practices.
Essentium commissioned research on the current and future use of industrial 3D printing and found that the use of large-scale AM more than doubled in the past year for 86 percent of manufacturing companies. Drivers for adopting 3D printing are its ability to improve part performance, increase design freedom, lower production costs, and overcome supply chain issues.
“Compared to the pre-pandemic situation, manufacturers reach out to us knowing exactly how AM can solve their problems and what specific technology they are looking for. The pandemic and the logistic issues pushed manufacturers to think out of the box and reinvent several of their processes. This way of thinking helped a lot in spreading the potential of AM and in-house production,” says Cristofori.
A good indicator of manufacturers realizing the value of AM is the appearance of new positions opening up in consumer electronics and robotics companies to capital equipment manufacturers that require AM experience. Furthermore, the latest manufacturing startups are beginning with AM built into their production plans. “This is the result of AM injecting equipment into colleges and trade schools over the last decade. We’re seeing the next wave of engineers enter the market with the expectation to use the tools on a daily basis,” explains Green.
And the advantages of implementation are clear. “Benefits that are hard to beat such as design freedom for the most detailed intricacies, cost and time savings, and the ability to move away from subtractive and more wasteful forms of manufacturing are all advantages in the world of AM amongst many others,” shares a representative from Roboze.
“Manufacturers see the benefits of rapid prototyping for iterative design cycles and developing demonstration articles. This enables them to create hands-on solutions during the initial design phase. Deployment in production environments is best realized when the designers are able to truly leverage the advantages 3D printing offers,” stresses Hardwick.
In regards to electronics, Ruscoe says there is growing appreciation of the benefits. “AM gives the opportunity to manufacturers to create lightweight components through lattice designs, which cannot be produced through conventional injection moulding.”
Different 3D printing technologies are used in electronics, robotics, and computing.
Green says typical methods of 3D printing in this segment include photopolymer systems such as stereolithography and digital light processing, as well as thermoplastic printers like fused deposition modeling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS).
An example of a photopolymer system used in this space is one that relies on LCD screens as the light source for curing photopolymer resins. “The LCD/liquid resin combination produces components with a very high level of surface finish. The dispersion of nano materials using the Mechnano process gives homogenous electrical properties to each part, while maintaining the physical properties of the parts produced. The speed and scale using this type of process is ideal for mass producing electronic components with high accuracy,” admits Ruscoe.
“Fused filament fabrication supports the robotics industry—prototyping and producing customized EOA robot grippers, assembly jigs, and inspection fixtures. Replacing time-consuming and expensive CNC of aluminum blanks, often outsourced, with in-house AM production reduces waste, lead time, and costs,” shares Cristofori.
SLS technology is promising for electronic, robotics, and computing, according to Neugebauer. “With SLS production there is no need to create a support on your parts in comparison with FDM. Plus you can reach a very high precision—450 μm laser spot size. Also, some advanced materials such as polypropylene or TPU are more common in the SLS process and these allow for the production of parts with very closed mechanical properties.”
“20 years ago factories were only using 3D printing for one-off fixtures, and this grew into medical and aerospace industries. Now, manufacturers continue to advance using AM—from FDM to SLS—and many are moving into metal printing, which was something unachievable in the past. Hundreds and thousands of metal parts are now printed,” adds Myerberg.
This includes metals for robotics like stainless steel and carbon steel, he continues. “The use of powder metals in manufacturing eliminate plating and post-processing. So better materials are used—like stainless steel—because less is utilized.”
Other solutions exist. “In continuous laser assisted deposition (CLAD) technology a material is dispensed and coated in a micron-thin layer on a carrier foil. It then advances under a laser beam, triggering a nano-second vaporization, which detaches and jets a material drop with micron precision,” says Birnbaum.
“Ceramic parts for electronics assemblies are often small components within devices,” notes Bornick, which makes Lithoz’ lithography-based ceramics manufacturing an option as well. “It is a high-resolution technology that provides the surface quality and repeatability required for end use in electronics applications.”
The key is finding a solution that works well with AM materials that are a fit for technology-based segments. For example polyamide 11 or PA 11—also known as nylon, which meet a number of standards required for robotics and electronics applications such as anti-static or anti-fire features, adds Neugebauer.
Items or parts created using AM processes in electronics in particular include ESD safe jigs and fixtures for printed circuit board manufacturing, components within a combustible/explosive environment, and nuisance static charge elimination, according to Ruscoe.
The production of customized covers for electronics is a widespread application, admits Cristofori. “Consider batch production of more minor, and possibly all different, parts—this supports the iteration of several components at once or the now higher request for mass customization.”
Semiconductors fall into electronics and computing. “There is a spike in the uptake of advanced manufacturing methods at semiconductor capital equipment manufacturers, where corrosive gas conveyance, vacuum environments, and thermal management are requirements,” says Green.
Robotics are a bit different. “Robotics applications require the integration of a tool into a manufacturing line or a process that is tightly linked to tooling, or end-effector design. For scratch built robots, as well as humanoid and drone applications, we seeing more than just accessories additively manufactured. In these mobile applications, overall system weight is a factor that needs to be handled, and AM allows the designer to express the maximum possible mechanical function with the minimum amount of material,” continues Green.
Prototypes as well as final pieces at are achieved with 3D printing. “Prototyping is often the jumping-off point, but when a final design is reached, there’s no longer a barrier to scale up from prototype to serial production,” notes Bornick.
While prototypes were the beginning of the AM journey, how it’s used has advanced greatly. According to Essentium’s research, the number of companies that have shifted to using AM for full-scale production runs of hundreds of thousands of parts has increased from 14 percent in 2020 to 22 percent in 2021, and only two percent use 3D printing for less than ten parts compared to 17 percent four years ago.
Production-level AM is a current reality. Photocentric was recently involved in a project with a contract manufacturer for the production of 30,000 units per day of printed circuit board spacer supports.
Advantage to 3D
3D printing is used in computing, robotics, and electronics. Thanks to advancements in printers and subsequently the types of materials used, manufacturers realize the benefits associated with AM methods.
If you are interested in learning more visit industrialprintmagazine.com/webinars to view an archived broadcast. Also, in the Target Chart section of the website, look for a detailed listing of various 3D printers suitable for manufacturing purposes. IPM
Apr2022, Industrial Print Magazine
3D printing, additive manufacturing, AM