3D printing

3D Printing has received a lot of press in recent months, and rightly so. The concept of being able to imagine an object, draw it, and have a machine produce it for you while you watch is an exciting one for any creative, let alone engineers. We’ve been excitedly watching the technology develop for many years now, but it has only now reached the point where we feel the ‘bang’ for our ‘buck’ is worthwhile.

Our new machine is an Objet Connex 350 as used by companies like Aston Martin and LEGO. It allows us to print items as large as a pile of laptops, in materials with a range of properties from clear, black, white, strong, rubber-like and temperature resistant to name but a few. What’s more, it can combine two of them into any part. A part can be printed in a hard black material, with optically clear sections, or soft parts to absorb shock. Interlocking and moving parts can be printed, allowing for fully assembled parts as varied as gearboxes, adjustable spanners and bicycle chains.

The real advantage to an R&D company like us is the turnaround time. A part can be conceptualised, drawn and printed within a matter of hours, rather than days to weeks. The cost is tens to hundreds of pounds per part, not thousands to tens of thousands. That means that we can now take most ideas from concept to working prototype in about 25% of the time and 10% of the cost it previously did using external machine shops etc.

There are some obvious drawbacks to the process – some of the materials have limits for some applications, in terms of strength, heat tolerance etc. which can’t match that of metals. The dimensional accuracy of parts produced with the technology is now really high and our machine can print at a resolution similar to the width of a human hair. The really exciting developments are in the materials which can be printed. Every few months new materials are released, which are stronger, have better finishes, different colours, and all sorts of new properties. Metal 3D printers now exist, and people around the world are working on new materials and applications.

Many great discoveries over the years have been made when an advanced technology became accessible to the masses. We’re already making developments in leaps and bounds thanks to our new toy engineering equipment, but we’re also really excited to see what else the rest of the world comes up with as the technology reaches more and more people around the world.