EnvisionTEC Blows Up RAPID with Mega Composite 3D Printer and More
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 25, 2016 |
EnvisionTEC redefines itself with large-scale SLCOM 1 composite 3D printer.

At RAPID 2016, EnvisionTEC made some surprise announcements that completely redefined the type of company it is in the industry. Previously known as pioneers in the 3D printing technology of digital light processing (DLP), the U.S.-German company has managed to redefine itself once again by announcing three new platforms at the event: a new bioprinter, a 3D printer for sandcasting and, perhaps its most substantial unveil, a massive industrial 3D printer dedicated to composite manufacturing. 

Bioprinting for Beginners?

What may have been EnvisionTEC's least exciting news was still nothing to scoff at. In addition to commercializing the first DLP system, EnvisionTEC was among the first to commercialize 3D bioprinting with its 3D-Bioplotter platform, which, released in 2002, is capable of fabricating scaffolds from organic material. Since then, the company had upgraded its technology and introduced two total systems: the three-cartridge Developer Series for research and the five-cartridge Manufacturer Series.

At RAPID 2016, the company announced the upcoming release of a new 3D-Bioplotter Starter Series targeted at small labs, as well as an upgrade to the existing Developer Series platform. The key difference between the Starter Series and the others is the use of two nonmodular high-temperature print heads, a print bed that is not temperature-controlled, an integrated PC and lack of access to the platform’s height control sensor. The other systems are, therefore, much more open to user control, are more highly automated and can use a greater range of materials.

The EnvisionTEC 3D-Bioplotter Developer Series. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The EnvisionTEC 3D-Bioplotter Developer Series. (Image courtesy of the author.)

The Developer Series has been upgraded to have two printing heads, temperature control over the print bed and a sterile filter. Additionally, the 3D-Bioplotter software has been improved across systems for new infill patterns, better surface finish, support structure generation, material lifetime control, the ability to share projects and more. 

Carlos Carvalho, process and material development specialist for EnvisionTEC, elaborated on what this means for the platform, saying, "With the release of this software, the 3D-Bioplotter is no longer limited to printing straight, parallel strands; instead, zig-zag, wave hexagon and space-filling patterns can be assigned to individual 3D shapes to create more complex and organic inner structures.”

EnvisionTEC Does Sand Casting

Among the industrial applications of 3D printing is the ability to 3D print sand molds and cores for casting metal objects. Several companies, including ExOne and Voxeljet, already manufacture binder jetting machines that fuse sand with a liquid binder to create objects that are then cast as metal objects.

EnvisionTEC already has the third-largest market share of any manufacturer, with its DLP platforms already quite popular for industrial applications in the jewelry, dental and medical industries. The company made it known at RAPID 2016, however, that it plans to become a serious player in many other industries as well by announcing a partnership with Viridis3D. EnvisionTEC will now be the exclusive supplier of Viridis3D’s technology for 3D printing sand molds and cores.

A sand mold 3D printed with the Viridis3D platform to cast a metal part. (Image courtesy of the author.)
A sand mold 3D printed with the Viridis3D platform to cast a metal part. (Image courtesy of the author.)

In 2015, Viridis3D unveiled the robotic additive manufacturing (RAM) platform, an ABB-brand industrial robotic arm that swings back and forth, depositing a layer of sand that is fused with a liquid binder at a rate of over three vertical inches per hour. Currently, the company is demonstrating one model that utilizes this process, the RAM 123, which has a build volume of 12 in x 24 in x 36 in.

Though the exact details of the partnership were not disclosed, Chief Operating Officer of EnvisionTEC John Hartner said of the partnership, “This will bring to the sand casting and investment casting industries a unique solution. Our partnership to unite innovative, industry-leading products and services to our expanding customer base will provide global solutions that save time and reduce cost, all while increasing output performance.”

Giant Composite Prints

Designed completely in-house, the SLCOM 1 implements EnvisionTEC's new patent-pending process dubbed selective lamination composite object manufacturing (SLCOM). Those familiar with the industry might liken SLCOM to the lamination 3D printing featured in Mcor's full-color paper printing technology, which prints ink onto office paper, glues the paper sheets together and slices it all into a 3D object with a tungsten carbide blade (a process known generically as LOM, or laminated object manufacturing).

The SLCOM 1 3D printer capable of 3D printing large-scale composite parts. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The SLCOM 1 3D printer capable of 3D printing large-scale composite parts. (Image courtesy of the author.)

To get EnvisionTEC’s enormous machine, however, first, scale this up to the size of a monster truck, switch out the glue for engineering-grade thermoplastics and replace the paper with industrial composites. The feedstock for the SLCOM consists of rolls of unidirectional or multidirectional woven composites, such as carbon fiber, Kevlar or fiberglass, that are pre-impregnated with thermoplastics, including Nylon 6, Nylon 11, Nylon 12, PEEK, PEKK, polycarbonate and more.

The machine feeds this roll into the print chamber layer by layer, before a heated roller passes over the sheets, melting the thermoplastic. An inkjet head also moves over the bed, jetting wax and a binding agent to the material. Finally, a cutting mechanism made up of a carbon blade and an ultrasonic emitter enters the scene and slices any area with the wax away, leaving only the desired object.

The end result is a composite part as large as 24 in x 30 in x 24 in and up to 500 pounds. The enormous doors on the machine then swing open to allow a forklift to enter and scoop up the part. The price tag is fit for a system capable of producing large, complex composite parts in an automated fashion. When the first unit is delivered in December, it will likely cost approximately $1 million.

Two composite parts 3D printed with EnvisionTEC’s new SLCOM platform. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Two composite parts 3D printed with EnvisionTEC’s new SLCOM platform. (Image courtesy of the author.)

At the show, there were only a couple of printed parts available for inspection that may demonstrate some of the drawbacks of the SLCOM. Like other sheet lamination technologies, it is likely not possible to 3D print parts as intricate as those made by other processes, such as selective laser sintering. Unused material is cut away from a 180-degree vertical angle, leaving only so many possible geometries and no ability to create hollow parts.

Nevertheless, the SLCOM 1 (will there be a 2 and 3?) combines the power of 3D printing and composite materials on a massive scale. So far, composites like carbon fiber are rare to find in the world of additive manufacturing. A number of manufacturers of filaments for fused deposition modeling have made materials that blend chopped fiber with plastic, like polylactic acid, but the only 3D printer capable of 3D printing continuous carbon fiber is the platform from Markforged, which is a desktop machine.

Typically the manufacturing of carbon fiber composite parts is a labor-intensive and expensive process, relying on advanced machinery (autoclaves) and manual intervention to wrap carbon fiber around a component. Now, however, EnvisionTEC has made carbon fiber 3D printing large enough for auto and aerospace manufacturers to produce large components that are extremely strong, yet lightweight and with unique, custom shapes.

If the technology delivers, it’s quite possible that the SLCOM process could be a game changer for both traditional manufacturers and the 3D printing industry. Traditional manufacturers will be able to take advantage of an automated process for fabricating composite parts, while 3D printing will make further headway into the mainstream manufacturing supply chain.

EnvisionTEC is therefore making the jump from the jewelry, dental and medical markets into the lucrative worlds of aerospace, automotive and other industrial sectors. Though Prodways has made it known that it wants to become the third-leading player in 3D printing, EnvisionTEC may have shown at RAPID 2016 that it already is.

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