Researchers at the University of Arkansas’ High Density Electronics Center (HiDEC) have found a number of ways to apply additive manufacturing technology to reduce costs, shorten lead times, and improve the quality of the research performed at the Center.
Additive manufacturing method where an object is fabricated from plastic, metal, or other materials (even concrete) by adding layer-upon-layer of the material to realize the final object. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printers print using a polymer that turns into a liquid when heated and back to a solid when cooled. FDM printers are simple to use, relatively low-cost, and commercially available from a number of sources. FDM printers like the MakerBot Replicator 2X (see Figure 1) are available for use at HiDEC by UA researchers and industrial clients.
Many people are aware that commercially available 3D printers are capable of making rapid prototypes of custom components. The perception of many is that the printed objects are used primarily for making small, scaled replicas of components to aid in visualizing how the actual component will fit in a larger assembly. However, printed objects themselves are used in many applications instead of a component manufactured using traditional methods.
The capability to rapidly generate fully custom and functional parts from plastic has obvious advantages for a typical researcher. As an example, skipping the need to have components milled by a machinist reduces cost and eliminates the delay associated the manual fabrication; components can now be rendered from drawings in a few hours instead of a few days (or weeks). An example of a functional part can be seen in Figure 2, where the gas flow chamber for a fuel cell was printed, saving considerable cost and effort.
HiDEC uses 3D-printed objects in three ways: fabrication of functional parts, process tooling, and design validation. Functional parts, as explained above, can be used to replace broken or worn lab components. While not always a permanent solution, this approach can significantly reduce downtime.
Process tooling includes items that are used as a part of a process to make another item. For example, using the FDM printer it is possible to create a simple fixture that holds components in place while they are being attached to a printed circuit board. The use of these items not only saves time during the process, but also helps to assure consistency.
Printed components can also be used for design validation, which entails using the printed part to assure that the part design is accurate. As an example, before spending $1,000 to pay for the fabrication of a custom metal enclosure for an electronic assembly, a plastic part can be printed so that the engineers can confirm that all mounting holes are accurately placed and that the enclosure has proper clearance around all board components.
Researchers continually find new applications for the rapid prototyping made possible by additive manufacturing technology. The next time you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had a custom tool that would make my task easier,” don’t wish for it… print it!