Something is going on in the field of additive manufacturing — something so big it may truly change manufacturing all the way up to mass production. Not in the future but – with the rhythms kept by innovation in the industrial additive manufacturing sector – it seems safe to say within a couple of years at most. The project is called FACTUM and it has been awarded £1.5 million in funding from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and huge industry partners such as BAE and Unilever. It is based on high-speed sintering (HSS) a rapid additive manufacturing process invented and studied for some considerable time by a team at Loughborough University. Professor Neil Hopkinson was part of that team, however, he is now leading the FACTUM research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, with a license from Loughborough.
The HSS machine used is owned by Loughborough University and has been loaned to Sheffield University where it is being used to research how additive manufacturing could be applied to end-use products even in fast moving consumer goods sectors. This is why Unilever, a global multi-brand distributor, got involved. At the opposite end of the spectrum is BAE (aerospace) and Cobham Antenna Systems (space telecommunication), representing how HSS could be implemented by the more traditional low-volume high-value additive manufacturing adopters. Another partner, Conran Associates, will study how this technology can offer new opportunities to designers. Finally there is Xaar, an inkjet technology manufacturer, that developed the inkjet heads used in the HSS system.
David Chapman of Xaar said FACTUM has the potential to radically change manufacturing and for this reason the team researching it has been focusing on keeping the project end-user focused thus keeping the supply chain companies outside the core group of partners. “We have no material suppliers as core partners to this project, so there’s no opportunity for monopoly or control over the supply chain by any particular company,” said Chapman.
So what has FACTUM demonstrated so far? “Something interesting we found,” Hopkinson told the TCT magazine, “[is that] we’re beginning to find some geometries where we expect it to be cheaper to use HSS than to injection mould for any production volume. To date, it’s been the case that it’s only cheaper to additive manufacture a product up to a certain production volume, thereafter it’s cheaper to injection mould. But we’ve found for some geometries this is no longer the case. With HSS, we predict for a substantial range of products it will always be cheaper than injection moulding, which won’t be able to compete on cost in these cases. We think this is a very profound first for additive manufacturing.”
This, along with the fact that HSS appears to be able to adopt a wider range of materials than SLS (though not yet as many as injection moulding), seems to imply that additive manufacturing truly has the potential to compete with mass manufacturing. The process is already capable of producing finger sized parts at less than one second per part: “The paradox – Hopkinson says – is that the heat is applied more gently and for a longer time than the laser, which translates into minimal particle damage and improved sintering quality.”
For the team, FACTUM is particularly interesting when applied to end-user projects. “The demands for aerospace are obvious and challenging but developing products to be qualitative enough to go on a supermarket shelf is equally – though differently – challenging,” Hopkinson concludes. “These challenges we are being set are very real and there’s such a buzz in our lab now because the team working on this can really see the fruits of their labour thanks to this end-user drive.” Stay tuned to read 3DPI’s interview with Prof Hopkinson on HSS and FACTUM in the upcoming weeks.
Source: TCT Magazine