Large format 3D printers have been around for a while – Materialise‘s Mammoth Stereolythography machine is over 20 years old! However, while the Mammoth was created for prototypes, there are increasingly more industrial applications for large format 3D printers. A couple of months ago we highlighted one (construction) but there are several others. It is no wonder then that press releases about large format 3D printers continue to flow. Just in the last week Massivit, Rize, Astro America, and Fabbrix have made announcements about new large format machines. Of course, more large format possibilities give rise to more applications and the positive spiral continues. In this post, we will highlight some additional large format applications, beyond construction.
The most obvious application is to build more parts at once. There is an obvious advantage to this application in that the overhead of preparing the bed, heating it, starting the process, and also ending the process and cooling everything down etc is spread over a larger number of parts. This increases the speed per part and also reduced cost per part in some cases. Most large format machines use some kind of extrusion and/or robotic arm where some would argue this overhead is not as pronounced as in powder bed applications but there is some expedience still in the larger bed.
Concrete is a popular material in construction applications (or as a combination robot/3D printer in concrete for construction like the aptly named Baubot), but recently its use was expanded to furniture. Designer Philipp Aduatz, in collaboration with incremetal3d, created a limited edition of 3D printed furniture (above) made of concrete that is dyed on the fly. In addition while the item is 3D printed the design allows for the insertion of steel reinforcement as can be seen in the profile view photo below. There is something captivating about 3D printed furniture. Previously Dirk vander Kooij recycled used refrigerator plastic into 3D printed furniture, he also recycled CD cases and created 3D printed light fixtures. The late architect, Zaha Hadid, also designed a 3D printed chair and additional chairs were designed by her firm in her memory.
Sometimes it is 1 specific dimension that is extra long. An easy example we all know is a car bumper. Another is this super long mold used for the production of helicopter rotor blades for Bell helicopters below: it is over 6.5m (22ft) long and was printed on Ingersoll Machine Tool‘s MasterPrint, which is a combination of a 3D printer and a milling machine. Often, in large format 3D printing, to keep the printing time manageable the layer height and deposition thickness is quite high and the finish is therefore quite rough and may require milling in the post processing. A combination machine takes care of both steps in the same machine. In the case of this mold, it was 3D printed in 75 hours (3 days and 3 hours) of ABS with 20% chopped carbon fiber fill and the final product weighs in at 1,150lbs (about 520 kg). Bell has previously 3D printed other large format tooling (up top) for its production.
Back in 2014 a large format 3D printer was used to 3D print the Strati car which had a rough characteristic-FDM finish. Since then more materials and machines have been invented. In 2019 U Maine and ORNL have 3D printed a boat hull (video here), and now the US Army wants to 3D print a joint-less metal hull (chassis) for Humvees and tanks. The main advantages of joint-less hulls is in survivability and weight reduction. The army chose ASTRO America as their partner to develop the needed ultra large format metal printer. The interesting thing about this development is that it will save the army from lugging bulky, heavy, and expensive equipment every time troupes are deployed – it can start with replacements but may not stop there.
The big question is what will be other large format applications for 3D printing that we don’t expect now? There are currently less metal applications, is that an area for growth? Will our automotive bumpers be 3D printed at some point? Maybe just for old models? It would require more material and 3D printing technology to get there and several companies are working on it!