3D Printing: From Lunar Habitats to Filter Bezels

3d-printing-lunar-module
3D Printing – it’s all the rage with everyone from Fortune 50 companies to backyard garage tinkerers printing everything from soap dishes to on-demand, injection-molded parts to car chassis to body parts. Only a few years ago, 3D printing was considered pie-in-the-sky science fiction, but today you can pick one up for about $500 at Office Depot. Granted, yours won’t be as versatile as, say, the ESA 3D which is currently being used in a study by the European Space Agency to print additive lunar colonies (think gigantic). That said, 3D printing is becoming more mainstream and (in some cases) more affordable. You’d think that would mean the technology would start to become more standardized, but as scientists and engineers dream up more interesting ways to render 3D printed material, the technology tends to get a little more complicated.

Put simply, 3D Printing is considered additive manufacturing where an object is created by adding materials by layers. Although 3D printing is relatively new, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) has developed 7 standards for 3D printing which include vat polymerization, material jetting, binder jetting, material extrusion and others. If you want to know the particulars of each standard you can find a few more details here().

As for printing mediums, in most cases the material (polymer, metal, concrete, food, whatever) is sprayed or extruded in layers and then molded (often by light, oxygen) into the finished product. Although the applications for 3D printing are limitless, the most common segments where 3D printing is taking off are in rapid prototyping, molds and tooling, digital manufacturing and personal fabrication. For industries like aerospace, automotive and industrial, 3D printing allows for the quick and cheap testing of the final geometry of complex parts without expensive and time-consuming design, forging and manufacturing. For industries like fashion, 3D printing allows for the creation of custom one-off products such as a unique pair of custom Nikes. And in healthcare, researchers and scientists are using 3D printers to create everything from custom prosthetics to ears, heart valves and bones.

So, where does UAF fit in to all of this? The short answer is that we seem to be somewhere right in the middle. While we don’t yet use 3D printers for any of our filtration products, we’re seeing a lot more 3D printed prototype parts arriving at the office for filter fitting. For example, None of our customers is working on a new telecom chassis and we were asked to make a custom filter. In addition to sending us the CAD specifications they also sent us a 3D printed piece of the chassis to demonstrate how they wanted the filter to attach. Other companies have sent 3D printed prototypes for plenums, bezels and other components so that we’re better able to mate our filters to the finished product.

In addition to working with more 3D printed prototypes (which seems to help quite a bit with creating the final filter product), we’re also supplying filters for 3D printer manufacturers, most notably Silicon Valley-based Carbon. Carbon has recently released one of the most advanced 3D printers on the market, the M1, that creates isotropic parts with mechanical properties and surface finishes like injection-molded plastics. With exceptional levels of detail on form, fit and function, the M1 may be the first 3D printer that bridges the gap between prototype and manufacturing. One of the hottest 3D printing manufacturers today, we’d like to believe Carbon is known for their advanced filtration capabilities but they’re probably best known for the unique way they create 3D objects using Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP). What’s so great about CLIP? Think Terminator 2 and check out the video below.

Having seen how our customers are getting more value and saving time and costs using 3D printing, UAF is currently evaluating ways to better integrate 3D printing more into our processes. Clearly, 3D components, even in lower resolution, allow us to visualize the end application beyond the CAD specifications. And if we can make a few Darth Vader helmets and soap dishes on the side, all the better!

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