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Additive Manufacturing is Taking Over Plastic Injection Molding

June 30, 2015

Just when you thought it was safe to use the term “3D printing”, along comes “additive manufacturing”, which seems to be the current buzzword of choice among academic researchers around the world, including the UK. But really, we’re talking about the same technology, which heretofore has mostly been applied to building prototypes and turning out small batches of plastic injected molded products.

However, that could be changing; scientists at the  University of Sheffield (South Yorkshire, England) say they are working on a machine that will churn out plastic parts up to three times larger and 100 times faster than today’s most advanced 3D, um, I mean additive manufacturing  machines.  Researchers says this makes their new baby capable of challenging conventional injection molding for high volume runs.

The project is only budgeted for a paltry $1.1 million: a bargain, if there ever was one, for a miraculous new technology that is being hailed as holding the potential to transform both manufacturing and distribution. Low-cost, high volume additive manufacturing would enable parts to be made on-site, rather than out-sourced.

Additive manufacturing is already being used to make products by the tens of thousands – such as iPhone covers — a volume which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.  Scientists believe that, in ten years’ time, producing volumes over a million using additive or 3D manufacturing will be commonplace.

The machine is based on a technology developed by the lead inventing team in the UK, who originally filed patents on the process as lead inventor at Loughborough University.  The new machines are expected to enter the market starting in 2017.

The process, called high speed sintering (HSS), selectively fuses polymer powder layer by layer, similar to other AM or 3D processes. But the similarities end there: HSS prints infra-red-absorbing ink onto a powder bed. Once a layer has been printed, it is exposed to infra-red light, which heats the powder covered by the ink, causing it to fuse, while the rest of the powder remains cool.

The new machine will be able to manufacture parts up to about the size of the washing machine. The speed will depend on the size of the product, but the team estimate that small components will be built at a rate of less than one second per part, allowing AM to directly compete with injection molding for high volume manufacturing.

.Additive manufacture also limits the risks involved. With injection molding, you have to make tools, which is expensive and has to be done a long-time in advance. With AM, you just skip that awkward “adolescent” stage, moving straight from design to manufacture.

The machine will initially be built in the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) before installation in the University’s Centre for Advanced Additive Manufacturing (AdAM).

The university said the machine will be built from the ground-up, drawing on all the skills and expertise of their design engineers, and will be their most complex project yet.


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