Polymer 3D Printing: Exploring 6 Innovative Examples of the Technology in Action
22 July 2020
Companies across almost all industries are adopting polymer 3D printing to drive innovation in product design, development and production.
Today we take a look at 6 examples of recent innovations, made possible thanks to polymer 3D printing, to discover how the technology is changing the game for companies across the automotive, medical and consumer goods sectors.
1. Customising automotive seats
Developing innovative 3D printing applications is nothing new for the automotive industry. One recent example comes from a luxury automaker, Porsche.
Earlier this year, the company introduced a new concept for sports car seating that leverages 3D printing and lattice design.
The new seats feature 3D-printed central seat and backrest cushion sections, produced with thermoplastic polyurethane, also known as TPU, a soft, rubber-like plastic. Using this flexible material allows seats to be customised by 3 firmness levels: hard, medium and soft.
The 3D-printed area has a lattice-like structure and is bonded to a plastic shell and covered with Porsche’s breathable Racetex mesh upholstery material. Well, not entirely covered – Porsche leaves, what it calls, ‘window panels’, exposing the red-coloured 3D-printed cushioning layer, as you can see in the image above.
For this application, the German automaker was inspired by the motorsport sector, where customised driver-specific seat fitting is the norm.
3D-printed full bucket seats have been available since May 2020, for 40 track drivers. Now, Porsche is gathering customer feedback that it will use to develop the final street-legal seat models for mid-2021.
Going forward, Porsche wants to expand seat customisation beyond firmness and colour, by personalising the seat to a customer’s specific body contour. 3D printing currently remains the only technology that can enable this level of customisation.
2. Developing safer bike helmets
3D printing of sporting goods has seen a growing interest from many consumer brands. One such brand is HEXR, a British company manufacturing custom-fit bike helmets, with the help of 3D printing and 3D scanning.
While not the first bike helmet to be 3D-printed, HEXR’s debut helmet is the first to use Polyamide 11, a tough nylon material.
Traditionally, inner liners of helmets are produced using expanded polystyrene foam (EPS). The HEXR team, however, believed that the custom nylon bike helmets offer riders better protection than foam-based helmets. To prove this, the company compared their PA 11 helmets with other bicycle helmets in velocity and acceleration tests. HEXR claims their helmet has performed better by an average of 30 per cent on a sample of over 40 helmets.
Key to the success of the nylon helmet is its custom-fit, honeycomb design, structured to dissipate the energy. This helps to spread the energy over a larger area and prevent the risk of serious injury.
3D printing and 3D scanning go hand in hand to make this design possible. The team at HEXR is using a 3D scan to 3D print workflow that combines a mobile fitting app, EOS’s polymer Selective Laser Sintering technology (SLS), and plant-based materials from Arkema.
According to HEXR, 3D printing is the only way to create the honeycomb and intricate cavities for removable padding, shells, straps and other elements. Furthermore, 3D printing doesn’t require moulds, which means each helmet can vary without added costs.
Following its mantra of ‘No two heads are the same, so why should helmets be?’, HEXR believes in the value of custom-fit helmets – and rapidly advancing 3D printing technologies help this vision materialise.
3. An improved riding experience with 3D-printed saddles
The world of cycling seems to be particularly welcoming of 3D printing technologies. While some companies are reimagining helmet designs, others use 3D printing to develop superior bike saddles.
In cycling, comfort is paramount, but most saddles have yet to find the balance between comfort, performance and stability.
One way 3D printing can help is by enabling the intelligent design to improve the performance and comfort of the saddle.
3D printing technology developer, Carbon, has partnered with a bike company, Fizik, to innovate bike saddle designs through the use of digital manufacturing.
By combining Carbon’s resin 3D printing technology, called Digital Light Synthesis (DLS), and the expertise of Fizik, the companies were able to design and manufacture multiple functional zones within the saddle, finetuning each of them separately for specific mechanical properties.
This means that each zone has a distinctive cushioning and mechanical response. For example, the middle provides support when pedalling on the hoods, and the rear is softly cushioned for more backward positions.
A combination of 3D printing, intelligent design and pressure mapping has helped to improve the saddle to offer performance benefits, like lighter weight, breathability and improved comfort.
Cyclists are constantly looking for ways to improve their riding experience and performance, and 3D printing looks set to become a viable solution in their toolbox.
4. A smarter snowboard binding design
To continue our sports theme, polymer 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) has recently been combined to create, perhaps the smartest, snowboard binding.
In snowboarding, bindings provide a direct connection to a snowboard and to ensure the best riding experience, they need to be well matched to the rider’s board and style.
Snowboard brand, Now, and Spanish 3D printing company, Addition, combined their know-how and skills to make the world’s first AI-designed and 3D-printed binding a reality.
Using computer simulation and generative design tools, the team was able to build a load case that emulated the stress that bindings undergo during aggressive carving and turning.
After hours of simulation and data analysis, the companies came up with the final design to be printed in nylon 12, using polymer powder bed fusion (PBF) technology.
But what does the 3D-printed and AI-designed binding have to offer? First of all, it’s 25 per cent lighter than traditional bindings. A reduction in weight has a positive effect on the binding’s response. This means that the bindings allow for immediate edge control and, therefore, more powerful turns.
Of course, it wasn’t merely a whim to use 3D printing to produce the binding. It simply turned out to be a manufacturing method that’s a real match for designs created with the help of generative design tools.
3D printing, in combination with advanced design software, has certainly paved the way for an even more innovative, optimised and more customised product development in the snowboarding industry.
5. 3D-printed swabs fill the gap in COVID-19 test kits
When it comes to halting the COVID-19 crisis, virus testing is key to diagnosing and tracking the epidemic. But many countries still find it difficult to increase testing capacity, not least because of the lack of test kits – the long nasal swabs and chemicals required to process them.
3D printing – particularly with resins – proved to be one of the solutions to the production of nasal swabs, as they can be produced quickly, cheaply, and at scale.
3D printing has demonstrated that it can be used as a viable production method when there are supply chain disruptions or traditional manufacturing is limited.
In the case of the nasal swabs, resin-based 3D printers and materials developed for the dental industry have been adapted for the production of nasal swabs. Resin 3D printing is a high-resolution process, suitable for the fine features of a nasal swab. Furthermore, many dental resin 3D printers have certified biocompatible materials that can be used right away.
Many resin 3D printer companies, from Formlabs and Carbon to EnvisionTEC and Origin, have been 3D printing nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing, with millions of swabs already shipped to hospitals around the world.
3D-printed nasal swabs add to the list of other essential supplies that continue to be in shortage, including 3D-printed face shields, respirators and ventilators. 3D printing can provide a unique opportunity to address these urgent needs and drive the adoption of digital manufacturing in the medical industry as a whole.
6. The future of 3D-printed fabrics
While polymer 3D printing is being used in multiple industries, its potential in the textile sector is yet to be completely realised. However, one development coming from Polymer specialists, Polymaker and Covestro, can significantly accelerate the adoption of 3D printing for clothing.
Until recently, 3D printable synthetic materials, like polylactic acid (PLA), have not been flexible and comfortable enough to be used as textiles. In most cases, the technology is used in the fashion industry to create rigid elements added on top of conventional fabrics.
The new approach by Polymaker and Covestro could, however, change how 3D printing is used in the textile and fashion industry.
In collaboration with 3D printer manufacturers, the two companies have developed a new technology for 3D-printed fabrics. This technology includes hardware (flexible-material specialised 3D printers), flexible materials like TPU and new design software specifically for fabric development.
This combination enables the production of 2D fabrics, usually only 2 to 5 layers thick, which are then integrated into the existing workflow to create articles of clothing such as hats, shoes and gloves. One of the key benefits of this process is that the 3D-printed piece of fabric produces no excess fabric that needs to be cut off and discarded, resulting in less wastage.
Up until now, 3D-printed fabrics have, essentially, been science and fashion experiments, with little practical value. The recent development of Polymaker and Covestro is opening up the possibility of using 3D printing in the production of textiles, that could eventually take 3D-printed fabrics out of labs and fashion shows and bring it into real-life consumer applications.
Polymer 3D printing: Enabling companies to innovate
While we’ve covered 6 examples of innovative 3D printing applications, it’s only the tip of the iceberg: the range of use cases for polymer 3D printing is growing by leaps and bounds.
With maturing polymer 3D printing technologies and an ever-expanding choice of materials, there is a significant opportunity to develop outstanding items with 3D printing and lead the change in your industry.