Director of Manufacturing Arley Carpenter (left) and Production Engineer Chris Figgatt examine an object produced by one of RCBI’s 3-D printers, the Fortus 900mc 3-D production system.
A 3-D printer such as this Z Corp. 450 3-D Color Model produces a prototype in a matter of hours rather than the days required by traditional manufacturing technology.
By Charlotte Weber
Envision, if you will, a
computer-linked device that can print not a sheet of paper but instead a solid object. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s not. It’s science fact, and it’s happening every day at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI). Manufacturers and entrepreneurs are using 3-D printers at RCBI in conjunction
with the facility’s design software and precision measurement equipment to turn their innovative ideas into reality. In doing so, they’re utilizing a new technology called additive manufacturing that’s triggering a revolution in the way things are made. Additive manufacturing, or AM, is the addition of layer upon layer of material to build a 3-D object, whether the material is plastic, metal or some other substance. This method is radically different from traditional machining techniques that mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling or cutting or by the use of presses to bend or shape material into a desired form. While it sounds difficult, AM is still as simple as printing a report—a manufacturer or entrepreneur pulls the 3-D blueprint of the object of their choice up on their computer, adjusts the size and shape to their preference and clicks “print” to send the project to the printer. The system’s software takes cross sections through the blueprint of the object to be created and calculates how each layer needs to be constructed. The “ink” in a 3-D printer is a material that is deposited in successive thin layers until a solid object forms. Different machines take different approaches to produce the desired object. Some fashion it from metal or plastic powders. The Fortus 900mc 3-D production system at RCBI uses a filament of thermoplastic material. The machine slowly unwinds the plastic from a spool and feeds it through a moving extrusion nozzle, heating the material to melt it. It deposits the melted material in a micro-thin layer in the desired pattern, repeating the process over and over again as the object takes shape. As subsequent layers are added, the melted plastic fuses to the layers
below. In areas such as overhangs, physical supports can be added and removed later or water-soluble materials can be added and later washed away. Three-dimensional printers are far slower than inkjet printers that produce flat images on paper, but they’re faster and cheaper than machining from metal or having a prototype made by hand. Using traditional ExEdge machining techniques to build a prototype of a new Touted as the world’s first product can take days or even feature-length weeks. Using AM technology, 3-D movie, a 3-D printer can typically “Bwana Devil” produce the same prototype was released in 1952 in the U.S., in a matter of hours. heralding a boom At RCBI’s Design Works in 3-D movie labs in Huntington and production. Charleston, the computer Source: work stations supplied with http://www. SolidWorks 3-D design mediacollege. software are reserved for the com/3d/history use of clients who need to design products they envision. In addition, RCBI also offers the use of its precision measurement technology, such as FARO ScanArm, which can be used to reverse engineer a part or product. A number of clients have used the AM equipment at RCBI since it went online, finding it to be very beneficial. Zim’s Bagging in Kenova, WV, a company that produces flexible packaging, has utilized both the Fortus 900mc and the smaller Dimension 1200es to produce various components for an automated packaging system they designed. “We have been able to get many small parts that would have been either very expensive or near impossible with more conventional fabrication methods,” says Vernon McIntyre, an engineer at Zim’s.