3D Printers

Materials under the spotlight

Researchers at Nottingham University now has a £3.5 million ($5.12 million) grant to develop new 3D printing materials.

The team, led by Professor Ricky Wildman, will look into combinations of materials that could change the way we think about 3D printing. The goal is to build a library of compounds, effectively new plastic and metallic compounds, that the industry can refer to for specific tasks.

We don’t really know materials at all

Material science is really in its infancy and the 3D printing industry itself has largely used mildly modified versions of the old-school PLA, PET and metal compounds that we are used to.

The manufacturing industry has refined these compounds for use in traditional injection moulding, thermoforming and metal casting techniques. It is time, though, for a total step change.

Simply put, we have not played to the 3D printer’s strengths. Now the team at Nottingham University will try to address that.

This project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and is one of seven similar projects. So this is a real, concerted effort to change the way we think about materials in the industry and to open up processes that we have previously written off.

“It is all about widening the portfolio of materials and making it easier for people to use 3D printing,” said Wildman. “Right now, if you want a certain material, then you have to use a certain process.”

We are too restricted

The materials available for use in 3D printing are quite limited, and are often restricted to a particular additive manufacturing technique. “If you want a certain material, then you have to use a particular 3D printing process,” he said. “Essentially industry should be able to come along and select the most appropriate formulation for their given purpose.”

It’s a bold concept, but how will the team make it happen?

It will employ high-throughput screening technology from the University’s School of Pharmacology to actually analyse a vast array of 3D printing inks. This simple concept should allow Wildman to inspect, reject or flag up an ink for further inspection without going through the arduous process of producing finished products.

Essentially they will print an array of materials on to a surface. They can then apply atomic-force miscroscopy to analyse the viscosity and surface tension of the inks, as well as to predict their physical properties.

A vast number of plastics can be eliminated wsith this technique

It’s a quick sieve for compounds

This technique may not be perfect, but it will help eliminate thousands of compounds that simply don’t work without going to the time, expense and effort of making large amounts of filament. Once the team has a pool of filament compounds that do look promising, it can then move to more rigorous testing.

“We will very quickly be able to get a snapshot of whether the material is printable and what its properties are, many hundreds of times faster,” he said.

As well as this simple technique, the team at Nottingham University will also produce a library for hot melt extrusion techniques and paste extrusion. Once it has the basic compounds fixed, too, they intend to move on to the method of formulation.

Challenging preconceptions

This study could challenge some of the long-held preconceptions about materials in 3D printing. It could also open up a vast number of possibilities in terms of the materials we can actually use in the future.

Certain materials are just off limits right now, but the addition of an ingredient could change the game entirely. This research is, in truth, long overdue.

We wish the EPRC well with its mission to change the face of 3D printing material science and we hope we get some exciting breakthroughs before too long.

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