3D Printers

3D printing reinvent foam, and it's better




Foam is a part of everyday life and has remained largely unchanged for a long time. Now a study by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory () has revealed that a new, 3D printed version is simply better than the foam we know and love.


Traditional production methods mean that the foam is actually highly irregular and the structure shows a massive variance in the size, shape and thickness of each cell. Scientists at the LLNL have now developed a 3D printed alternative that they claim is superior in almost every way. It lasts longer, offers superior impact protection and can be tailored to each specific use.


Every foam is different

Of course some foam is thrown away almost immediately, while the cushions of a sofa take a beating each and every day for the lifespan of the furniture. Foam has been with us for so long that we take it for granted, even though we have the likes of memory foam that offers a better night’s sleep. To come up with a complete replacement is no small feat and LLNL has had to embark on a massive programme of research and development.


This involved accelerated aging, using elevated temperatures and the same constant compression. Traditional foam was used as a benchmark and the various solutions were tested for their response to stress, their mechanical response and the amount of permanent deformation over the course of a one-year period. The results were then extrapolated using time-temperature superposition techniques that showed how the cushions would fare in the real world over a much longer period.


3D printed foam is simply better

LLNL revealed that the 3D printed foam retained its shape, as well as its internal structure and mechanical properties, far better than the traditional alternative. In case you’re thinking this was one long love letter to the 3D printing industry, the lab revealed simultaneously that 3D printed rubber in the foam fared far worse than the old-school option.


The team carried out a series of Computed Tomography (CT) scans to analyse the stress distribution in each structure. It found the lack of uniformity in the traditional stochastic foam meant that the forces weren’t distributed evenly. The foam still did its job, for the most part, but the forces were concentrated at weak points in the foam’s structure. This led to long-term damage.


In contrast, the 3D printed form was totally uniform, the forces were spread evenly and mechanically this is a much sounder solution that should last longer and perform better.


“3D printing of foams offers tremendous flexibility in creating programmable architectures, customizable shapes and tunable mechanical response,” said the lead author of the study, Amitesh Maiti. “Now that our work strongly indicates superior long-term stability and performance of the printed material, there is no reason not to consider replacing traditional foam with appropriately designed 3D-printed foam in specific future applications.”


Foams, also known as cellular solids, are vital to a vast number of industries and figure in all of our lives on a continuous basis. The automotive, aerospace, marine, biomedical, defence and electronics industry all rely on foam. Every industry uses it, at some point, so an improved version will touch all of our lives.


Mass production would be a problem

There is just one issue that the study does not address and that is how 3D printing can effectively keep up with the demand for foam at an effective price-point. Mass manufacturing on this level is simply beyond the industry right now and foam’s very ubiquity is what will make it an almighty challenge to take on.


We may see 3D printed foam surface in high-end furniture, mattresses and other specialist functions that demand the absolute best materials. Beyond that, we may have to wait for the mass production capabilities of 3D printing to catch up with this particular curve.



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