3D Printing


In recent months 3D printing has exploded into the public consciousness. President Obama said that it has “the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything”. Have the praises of 3D printing been embellished by the media surge?

Our 3D printing process...

To create a 3D print, we need to create the necessary 3D data. This task will usually be undertaken by our skilled CAD engineers and will involve a secret combination of cutting edge CAD software. We may also utilise our in house 3D scanning technology (find out much more about 3D scanning in the next spotlight) and a specialized 3D sculpting program for creating more organic forms. Once the data has been created by whichever method is appropriate, we send it off to our 3D printer.

Our printer and how it works...

We are a serious bunch of designers, so we have a serious 3D printer.  Our ‘Objet Eden350V’ has the ability to print in 17 distinct materials ranging from specialised materials for dental and medical applications to transparent, high temperature resistant or elastomer like plastics. A rule of thumb with 3D printers is that you get what you pay for when it comes to surface finish. Many of our prints will go on to be used by clients to market products so must have the high grade surface finish which our printer can provide (with some finishing from our talented model makers of course).

Before the object is printed on our ‘Objet Eden350V’, a layer of build structure is laid down by the printer onto the bed (area where the object is built). Build structure has the look and feel (but not taste) of very well set jelly and helps us to get the product off of the bed without damaging it, however it serves a more interesting purpose later on in the printing process.

Our ‘Objet Eden350V’ 3D printer’s software breaks the CAD model up into thin slices and creates it from the bottom up one slice at a time by depositing thin layers of resin. The curing and hardening of these layers is sped up with the use of UV lights within the machine. ‘Build structure’ is used to fill up holes or undercuts in the product and to support parts which are not attached to the main body. This is where the true genius of 3D printing lies. Whereas previously a mechanism with multiple moving parts would have to be created in separate parts and subsequently assembled, the use of build structure means that it can be printed in one go.

Once printed the water soluble build structure is removed using a water jet and a caustic soda bath is used to loosen build material in small recesses. Another quick blast with the water jet ensures perfectly ‘clean’ prints.

How we use our printer...

Our 3D printer is running pretty much around the clock. It will often run through the night and we sometimes come in on weekends to put a print on! It allows us to literally create models in our sleep! So what do we do with all those prints?

-  Some are used as part of the design process. There is no better way to evaluate a design than to hold it in your hands and fully explore the physical form.

-  Others are used for testing. We may print out an entire product or just parts of a product and see how it fits together, how it performs and how well it does the job that it’s designed to do.

-  Some may be used by clients to market the product before it goes into production. Whilst 3D printing is developing rapidly we can still only print in basic colours. What helps sell a model in is the finishes that we apply after the print is complete. Our model making professionals can finish and spray paint prints to look like production prototypes or create the necessary hardware to create a functional prototype. Giving a presentation to potential investors will be much more persuasive if they can interact with the product!

-  Our sculptors can beautifully paint prints to be used as colour masters, known as ‘deco samples’, for the production of action figures.

-  We also utilize prints to create tooling masters with which to create batch samples for product testing trials. In fact, we can utilize our international presence to take a product right through to manufacture. This is a fully managed service which we have successfully delivered for many of our prestigious clients.

At designworks we are consistently developing products for a wide range of fast moving markets varying as widely as toys to medical equipment so, depending on the end goal, it is essential we choose the best tool for the job.  We selected a 3D printer that can deliver on a wide range of product specifications, however in special cases we utilise other 3D printers, or even different processes entirely to best achieve the optimal solution.

3D printing in the media...

3D printing has been heralded as the sleek, cool and sexy savior of the outdated manufacturing industry. As you can see, we use our 3D printer for a huge range of applications, but we still have a workshop full of traditional machines; CNC milling machines, lathes, vacuum formers, vacuum casters etc. We even have a huge stock of humble hand tools and an army of employees with boundless hands on skill. Our sculptors still work with clay to produce action figures and our workshop is still working round the clock to produce all sorts of weird and wonderful creations. So why isn’t this all being 3D printed?

Well the reason is simple. 3D printing isn’t the best way of producing everything…yet. After a few more years of refinement it very well could be, but it isn’t quite there. It is definitely the best way of producing some things, and it is endlessly useful as a tool within the product design and manufacture process, however, it is just that; another tool. Here at designworks we love new technologies and are always quick to adopt an innovative new process, however we are also seasoned professionals and we know that each tool has its place.

A tool is also nothing without somebody who knows how best to use it. The reason 3D printers are not yet commonplace in our homes is not just cost related. It is also due to their dependence on 3D data. Vast amounts of skill and experience are needed to create data which is worth printing, so until CAD packages are simplified and streamlined, they will forever hold 3D printing back. Could the answer lie in 3D scanning? Find out in our next spotlight.

Lewis Freeman3D Printing