3D PRINTING: PARTS AND REPAIRS AT THE TOUCH OF A BUTTON

If you were asked to pick a technology that had the capacity to be truly transformative, it would be difficult to look past 3D printing. It’s a technology that has been turned to good use in just about any field you can think of – from construction to clothing, home appliances to aerospace, from toys to medical prosthetics.

It has also found extensive use within the automotive industry. For example, Audi uses the technology to manufacture parts on-demand; Ford is testing 3D printing of large-scale car parts, like spoilers, for prototyping and future production vehicles; GM has been using the technology for rapid prototyping for many years; Porsche is using it to produce rare parts for some of its classic models . . . the list of those using 3D printing is long and growing.

So, how does it work?

It’s actually fairly simple. You take a 3D design – a design created from scratch in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software or uploaded into that software via a 3D scanner – and send that design to print.

The printer builds the design using the principle of additive manufacturing – a process in which an object is created by laying down successive layers of a chosen material. This process is the opposite of the traditional ‘subtractive’ manufacturing method which removes material from a block to achieve the final object, for example in a milling machine.

The additive material used in the 3D printing process can vary. Nylon is the base material most commonly used, with other materials such as carbon fibre, fibreglass or Kevlar added to meet strength requirements. Metal objects can also be created, although this requires specific printer technology.

While huge corporations and research institutions use, test and develop 3D printing technology, it is no longer solely their preserve, and companies have been established to offer 3D printing services to individual customers as well as businesses both small and large.

One such company is 3D Space Labs, or 3DSL, based at MTA Queensland’s Sir Jack Brabham Automotive Centre of Excellence.

Founded by Iain Gilmour in 2014, 3DSL sells a variety of the leading brands of printers, and offers a range of services including 3D printing, 3D scanning and design work. And it is the automotive sector, Iain says, that most often calls on his company’s talents.

“Many calls are from automotive companies,” he says. “3D printing, scanning and design is all about customisation, and often it’s about taking an existing product and adapting it to suit a particular niche.

“Clients may call because they want to work on an item that they have but for which they don’t have a CAD model. In that instance, I will go and scan the object and produce a 3D digital model that they can then open in their own CAD system. That gives them the freedom to then examine and experiment with the digital model and work out what needs to be done to meet their requirements. We can print that for them too, should they require it.

“A left to right-hand conversion is a good example of that type of work. In that instance, you may import a car from the US and switch the driving from one side to the other. There are lots of people that offer that service, but the problem is that there are not a lot, sometimes none, of the dashboard trims and other ancillary items from inside a vehicle that has that conversion. So, what we can do is scan components, put it into our CAD system, employ a ‘mirror’ command to the scan and end up with a mirror copy that we then print. In a couple of days, the customer can have something that just doesn’t exist anywhere else.

“We recently worked on converting a Cadillac dash trim for a client. It was the size of a hockey stick and took about 85 hours to complete. The client had the part within a week, and that included two days shipping, and received a part that didn’t exist anywhere else.

“Under normal circumstances, the time and cost to make that part would probably have made the project too prohibitive for them to even entertain.”

Another example of the work Iain and 3DSL are doing is an exhaust system project. It’s a project for a client keen to see if 3D scanning can be accurate in delivering precise measurements.

“The customer wants to be able to scan exhaust systems, or any other tubular section that comes to him, that don’t have a drawing or a CAD model,” says Iain. “In those circumstances they would need a digital model so that they can design other components around it.”

The 3D scanning process is, of course, remarkably accurate, and seeing it demonstrated is remarkable. With just a single hand-held high-resolution scanning device, Iain can move swiftly around any object, of almost any size, and the scanner digitally captures the shape of that object. The level of detail captured is incredible and that information is transferred, in real time, to the computer, with the highly-detailed 3D image appearing instantly on screen.

And while it would seem likely that the less complicated an object the easier it is to scan and print, Iain says that is not the case.

“Complexity comes for free with 3D printing – it doesn’t matter how complex an object is,” he says. “If you think about a ‘helter-skelter’ type structure with lots of curves, loops and knots – these are no problem for 3D scanners and printers. It would be a challenge to make those things with traditional methods, but in 3D printing, nothing is complicated.”

A mechanical engineer who worked in the UK Space industry designing thermal control systems for satellites, Iain moved to Australia in 2008 and spotted early the potential of the 3D printing market, particularly for business. He began by selling the printers and the associated Solidworks CAD software, and that is a service he still offers.

“Anyone can come in and buy a printer,” he says. “And at 3DSL we sell only the top brand names in this industry – names such as Markforged, Artech and EOS.”

These printers include those that print using carbon fibre, fibreglass, Kevlar and even metal, and 3DSL has some of these printers on site (including a 3D Platform Workbench that can print objects up to 1m x 1m x 0.5m) which have been used to create the Cadillac trim, a motorcycle petrol tank, gears and other complex items.

The automotive industry is clearly where 3D printing is having, and will have, a major impact. Just last month, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne announced that it was to spearhead the development of an automated 3D printed repair service for cars. The goal, apparently, is ‘to enable the low cost rapid service for automotive plastic trim and assembly components that can be commercially implemented in a same-day fix of vehicles damaged by collisions’.

News like that highlights the rapid progression of 3D printing and how it is already becoming as indispensable part of the automotive sector.

For Iain, the connection is clear and he is working on other projects that strengthen that link, including one that is designed to allow workshops to scan parts, match them to OEM parts through an online database, and then download and print from the OE specs. Along with the bespoke printing and scanning work 3DSL currently does, it looks like there is an exciting future ahead.

“We can see a time when every mechanical workshop has a 3D printer, and it is exciting,” says Iain. “3D printing and scanning means you can quickly scan an object, take it into the CAD system, play around with it, improve it, fix it, enhance it, reverse engineer it and have something unique to your requirements.  It’s about bringing people’s ideas to life!”

For more information, visit www.3dsl.com.au

8 Mar 2018