Three-dimensional (3D) printers being sold in South Africa by electronics distributor Rectron currently print in two types of plastic, but have a clear upgrade path over the next five years to eventually print in wood, ceramics and metal-alloy materials, says Rectron Group printer business unit manager Bruce Bradford.
The desktop 3D printers are made by US 3D printing equipment company MakerBot and are mainly used in industry for prototyping, form-factor assessments and designs, as well as in education and by hobbyists.
Scaled-down articulated skeletons, artificial body parts, with different colours or plastics for different tissues, and dinosaur skeletons are often printed for use in schools and education is a key market for MakerBot in the US.
“Because the product is produced layer by layer from a 3D computer design, highly creative or innovative objects can be produced by people without manufacturing experience.”
3D printing, as a form of additive manufacturing, can produce products that are difficult to produce using reductive methods of manufacturing, including nested objects printed inside others (similar to matryoshka Russian dolls) and cavities within objects, as examples.
While the resultant product requires minimal work to finalise, the small scale at which filaments of plastic are added does increase the time of manufacturing. The extruder heads are adjustable and can print filaments in resolutions down to 100 µm or 0.1 mm.
MakerBot has added cameras to its machines and provided applications for mobile devices so that users can upload designs, and launch and monitor jobs remotely on multiple printers. Users can monitor the time to completion, as well as see the amount of material remaining in the machines.
The printers and supporting applications are designed to enable even nontechnical enthusiasts to use the printers, but more technical users can change the temperature of the extruder heads, the thickness of various parts of the object or the resolution of the filaments laid down, besides other settings, based on their requirements or designs.
Objects printed in 3D
are typically filled with a honeycomb lattice to reduce the amount of material and the time required to print them, while remaining structurally strong. The printers can currently print maize-derived PLA plastics, while one printer series can print harder petroleum-derived ABS plastics.
However, MakerBot has a set upgrade path for the machines and users will eventually be able to replace extruder heads with new extruders that will be able to print in different materials, including ceramics, metal alloys and woods.
“The goal is to ensure the machines are investments. “Companies and individuals using the machines can look forward to more materials being added within the next few years and can use the same machine with new extruders to print these materials. MakerBot is testing how to print such materials, including extruder temperatures and the intricacies of printing these new materials, such as the flow and fusing of the materials during a print.”
The firmware on the machines is updated about once a month, while there are also communities of users that can provide advice, designs and troubleshooting help.
“Technical support and advice is provided by MakerBot and Rectron, in South Africa, and users can also opt to have Rectron install the machines for them.”