The essence of 3D metal printing lies in a well-considered design

Published on by Development & Engineering

Some five years ago Jeroen Jonkers started his specialisation in the field of Additive Manufacturing (AM) at NTS. In assignment of NTS he started exploring the relatively unknown area of 3D metal printing in the AddLab together with eight partner companies. Because of this NTS now is a frontrunner in this field.  AM has turned out be a very good, supplementary and utterly flexible manufacturing technology that is particularly suited to product complex geometries in series. The essence lies in a well-considered design, something which requires profound insight in the entire production process. The next couple of years NTS will proceed in the AddFab in order to further integrate metal printing in engineering and the supply chain. 

AddLab

Over the past few years the AddLab functioned as a 3D printing pilot factory. The facility was based on the ambition to develop a broad range of High Tech and high-end manufacturing applications for 3D metal printing. This joint facility was financed by nine industrial partners among which was NTS. The companies that participated in the pilot were convinced of the fact that they had a better chance of playing a globally leading role in the field of industrial 3D printing by joining forces. A team of AM professionals managed the AddLab and supported the participating companies in the development and production of 3D printed metals and parts for end-users. NTS together with two partners, will proceed with developing the industrialisation of 3D metal printing in the AddFab.

Pioneering with friendly competitors

Jeroen was fascinated by Additive Manufacturing long before he started working at NTS. He, for example, built his own plastic printer that he used to explore the possibilities of 3D print. For Jeroen experimenting on a large scale started in the Addlab. Additive Industries’ initiative in which nine companies wanted to join forces in order to innovate in the field of AM together across the borders of individual companies and at low costs, was where he learned most. “Collaboration boiled down to pioneering with friendly competitors. For an individual company it is highly demanding to invest in Additive Manufacturing, certainly when you have to start without knowledge or experience. That is why the companies decided to work together and we just started doing it.”

Very structured approach

We, however, didn’t just ‘start doing it’, but chose for a highly structured approach. With various competence groups for several subjects as design for AM, materials, print processes and postproduction. As a representative of NTS I was in lead of the competence group design for Additive Manufacturing. During this process we used a printer that melts metal powder by using a laser. We still use it now the AddFab.”

Gaining insight step by step

“In the beginning you do not know what to print. That is why I started printing an object that already existed. Soon I noticed that parts get different shapes by the enormous fluctuations in temperature. I learned from this. Gradually I also learned that you can influence the form purity that you get to a great extent by the design. And that seen from the print process you really need to think about in which case printing has clear added value.”

Good design requires less postproduction

When you succeed in making a well-considered design, postproduction is required less often. You can also vary in material properties and density of materials. This is something Additive Manufacturing is perfectly suited for. Although there are some limits, the surface roughness of objects can be controlled to a large degree.”

Printing edges is difficult

“After having copied existing objects by using AM, I went to our engineering department to ask for ideas for a next printing project. They then gave me an object that contains mirrors in in several angles to line a beam of light. It can occur that an object needs to cope with a lot of thermal tension during the printing process. You need to think this through on beforehand. It takes a lot of process knowledge to make the right choices.”

Reverse engineering

“Another experiment concerned reverse engineering. I was experimenting with mouldable plastic for a mill fixture. At one point I was holding the material for the mould in my hand and I accidentally squeezed it which led to a print of my hand. That was quite a complicated shape and I immediately saw a case in it concerning customization and reverse engineering. With the help of a 3D scanner in the AddLab I made a digital copy of the shape. Then the next question arose: how do I go from a 3D scan to a pure CAD model and can I add some additional specs to it? The objects I made earlier were made with CAD, traditional design software, but for this I needed more modelling possibilities. In the end because of this case NTS was approached to test new CAD functionalities even before it was brought to market. This underlines that what you are working on is truly innovative.”

All printing possibilities in one object

“In the end it turned out to be a nice object. Not a functional design but we learned a lot form the exercise. The object contains all important aspects of 3D printing. The organic form varies in roughness and we applied all kinds of postproduction processes to it. It, for example, has fluid forms and contains caves that you cannot reach to clean them, that is something you need to take into account in a good design.”

The added value of Additive Manufacturing

“Printing of metal has proven to be particularly suited for the optimisation and integration of functionalities as shape complexity is almost free of costs when using AM. For example, to improve the strength and stiffness of an object while reducing its weight at the same time. At this stage NTS is not printing series of products but we are running test concerning metal printed components. In these specific cases we are able to manufacture the components at equal or even lower costs but the greatest advantage is that the printed components optimise the function of the systems that they are used for. One of the cases concerns the flowing of fluids and printing enables us to model the object in a very precise way and optimise the flow. Moreover, this technology allows you to develop in a very rapid way, you hardly need to remove metal, work planning is limited and there are hardly any startup costs. Print is not more attractive than other manufacturing methods by definition. Applying Additive Manufacturing needs to make sense. And that is the case when you look at the products NTS is currently testing.”

Advantages of Additive Manufacturing

  • Short development times
  • Ideal for prototyping
  • Very suited for low volume, high complexity, high diversity
  • High degree of system and process optimisation
  • Material-, weight- and cost reduction

The future of AM for NTS

NTS’s focus when it comes to AM for the upcoming years is aimed at industrialisation, markets and applications. “AM offers many new possibilities and truly is a valuable addition to the current manufacturing technologies. As a system supplier this offers NTS the possibility to serve various markets in a flexible manner.” In this way the collaboration in the AddFab serves as a stepping stone. The joint printing facility will, eventually, be located on the Brainport Industries Campus. “There we are going to focus on three work packages: industrialisation, quality management and industrial cases with ‘state of the art’ machines and the ambition to deliver world class Additive Manufacturing.”

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