Have Bristol University Found a Solution to Composite 3D Printing?

There are many experts who are predicting that 2016 could be the breakthrough year for 3D printing but one of the biggest problems to date has been how to produce composite items, those made up of more than one material. The good news is that researchers at Bristol University may have come up with the answer.

3D printing has been teetering on the edge of universal acceptance over the past few years as prices come down and the technology improves. It is being taken up by design engineers and factories to produce high quality solid objects that can then be used in machinery or in the development of prototypes.

The issue has always been that different materials need to be arranged in specific micro-structures whilst being printed, something that is often beyond the capability of current 3D printers. The team at Bristol University have developed a method using ultrasonic waves to get over this hurdle and produce composite items. Combining these waves and light cured resin and simply using a desktop 3D printer to produce everything from bicycle frames to golf clubs, all of which are as strong and durable as the real thing.

This could be a revolutionary breakthrough for manufacturing industries particularly since it can easily be used with existing 3D print technology.

What are Composite Materials?

They are made from combining glass or carbon fibre micro-structures with plastic which makes a stronger and more durable product that is also very lightweight. In the current manufacturing climate these are made by arranging layers of material which can then be cut into specific thicknesses and shapes. The problem has always been that, to do this in a 3D printer, the fibres need to be aligned perfectly, something which was, up until now, pretty impossible.

The Bristol solution uses two transducers which produce ultrasonic waves creating kind of a force field that aligns the fibres in conjunction with the light-cured resin. The glass or carbon fibre structures then act as reinforcement strengthening the whole structure. All it needs once the fibres are in place is for a laser beam to harden everything ready for use.

This process may also allow manufacturers to make entirely new composite materials that can’t be produced using traditional methods. The number of different variations could be limitless and may in fact lead to the development of smart materials that will have great benefits in the future, including tubes that will be able to take an electric current or transmit data more effectively.

These are, of course, early days and the predictions of a tipping point for 3D printing being reached this year might be a little too over optimistic. But this is an industry that is starting to gather pace and develop as more research comes through. It may not be too long before we see printers that can handle a huge range of composite materials and even print out a whole car in one sitting!