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What to expect from your 3d printed product

To paraphrase the late American inventor, Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I've just found many ways that won't work.” This is very much true of our work to develop products that can be 3d printed. As discussed in a previous blog, 3d printing has come a long way in the last decade, but it’s far from perfect. We use a combination of materials and processes, to provide a product that’s robust and meets user needs. The 3d printing processes we use don’t, however, produce products like you’re more familiar with.

Like any manufacturing process, there are design rules and guidelines that can be used to optimise geometry for 3d printing, but it isn’t always feasible to follow these. 3d printing produces unique product qualities that can look inferior to products that have been mass produced. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, 3d printing builds parts in layers. These layers, when looked at closely, resemble a staircase. Shallow contours show this staircase more prominently. The effect can look slightly rough; detail can be a little blurred. Secondly, there are witness marks from where support material has been pulled away from the component. The support structures are required to attach overhangs to the build platform and are usually in the same material as the part. This means they must be manually pulled away. The witness marks are hand finished, but this can leave evidence of scrapes and hand working. Thirdly, sometimes layers don’t quite build correctly. Variations in temperature, humidity, materials, etc mean that sometimes, the build process doesn’t quite work as planned. There are hundreds of parameters for the processes we use. A slight tweak can make a big difference. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Post processing can remove blemishes, but you may see evidence of this. You could think of 3d printed components like a hand carved sculpture; every one has unique markings.

Image 1 and 2 illustrate some of the challenges. Image 1 shows small gaps in layers, witness marks where supports have been removed and the stair step effect. Image 2 shows mid flexible build print. Flexible material poses yet more challenges. Imagine trying to build a tower from jelly. The taller it gets, the more it wobbles it gets, just like the thin support structures and part do during a 3d print.

Image 1: close up of a 3d printed side wall. There are small gaps in the layers and witness marks from supprot structures.

Image 2: Mid build of an elastomer product. This shows messy support structures which flex and fail as they get taller.

We’ve spent (probably) hundreds of hours refining designs, changing 3d printing parameters, testing materials and, to be honest, getting quite frustrated at times! We’ve found many ways that won’t work. This means that whilst our products may not look perfectly smooth like mass produced moulded parts, they will perform correctly and meet user needs affordably. 3d printing also gives us the potential to produce custom devices, on-demand and potentially anywhere in the world to your needs. We know the advantages outwieigh the limitations.

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