Using a fleet of 12 Formlabs Form 2 desktop 3D printers for the stereolithography (SLA) of polymer components, four Form Cure post-curing stations, four Form Wash cleaning stations, and buffing capabilities, AMRC development engineer and additive manufacturing (AM) specialist, Mark Cocking, believes the new capability will spur the adoption of this technology across a range of sectors.

“This unique capability will be of great benefit to industry, especially to SMEs exploring AM as an alternative production method, and to larger companies who wish to work with us and conduct research projects into the batch production of additively manufactured components,” he says.

The bank is installed on custom racking that connects each printer to Formlabs’ Dashboard software, which gives users visibility of printer utilisation, allowing them to select a printer using the appropriate material for their print build with just a couple of clicks.

After a 45-minute training course and completing their first print, engineers have remote access to SLA capabilities and 20 different polymer materials for a range of applications. The bank has already been used by AMRC research projects for global aerospace companies exploring the feasibility of investing in batch-printing technology, to produce components of the necessary quality, within very short time-frames.

“The bank has been a great success with staff across the site, and we are completing well over 700 print runs every month; over 1000 components have already processed,” says Cocking.

Creating open access for all was critical to the system’s success.

“If you give engineers the means to develop their own design, and the AM skills needed to use the print stations, they naturally develop their own use-cases for AM in their research projects, from concept demonstrators to the creation of components like jigs and fixtures.

“Once the skills and knowledge are shared and embedded, engineers are able to draw on their wider experience and capabilities toolkit to service projects, thus encouraging innovation. Using the new capability to share knowledge and best practice with our supply chain resellers means we can provide a comprehensive service to our industry partners by advising them on how to access and build systems to specification, with scalable options.”

Much like the large-scale SLS high-speed sintering machine being developed by the AMRC and the University of Sheffield’s AdAM Centre, the bank of 3D printers allows multiple parts to be built in each print run for shorter lead times and quick turnaround on component builds.

Formlabs, which started out of MIT in 2011 and now has over 500 people across Boston, North Carolina, Hungary, Germany, Japan, and China, has been following Cocking’s ambitious project with keen interest, and recently came to witness how it was stimulating innovation and productivity improvements across the AMRC itself.

Projects witnessed by the company included the batch production of 500 high-precision drilling caps that had to prevent cross-contamination during aerospace drilling trials; the 3D printing of highly intricate brackets for a pick-and-place robot that automates composites manufacturing; fixtures for a sensor-mounting system used on an autonomous welding project; and the printing of rollers for a composite filament winding machine.

“We often hear about companies that try to adopt 3D printing, but purchase expensive machinery which ends up standing idle in a corner because of its complexity and limited accessibility,” says David Lakatos, chief product officer at Formlabs. “The AMRC’s open-access bank with the Form 2 3D printers and post-processing units is a brilliant model that other companies can easily replicate to solve this challenge and empower hundreds of engineers to support their work.

“The wide range of applications we saw across multiple AMRC sites proves that once equipped with these versatile and easy-to-use tools, engineers will find ways to integrate them into their workflows, savings time, costs, and increasing efficiency,” he adds.

Concludes Cocking: “The projects are really great examples of the breadth of applications AM can be used for. However, we also want to show industry how accessible this technology is, even the smaller companies, and demonstrate how batch-quantity, bespoke AM is possible right now, at a good price point.”