Nothing actually appears to happen when the Essentium rep flips the switch to fire up the company’s demo. The change is undetectable standing a foot away from the Stacker industrial 3D printer, but if you lean forward and peek into the small gap between the print head and bed, you’ll spot two small semi-circles that glow purple like a range oven on its highest setting.
It’s the glow of plasma reacting with the air as the print head goes to work fusing together the plastic material as the printer builds the piece up, layer by layer. The startup is headlining the Rapid conference in Pittsburgh, PA to show off FuseBox, a technology aimed at addressing the issue of structural integrity that serves as one of a number of key roadblocks slowing 3D printing’s growth as a legitimate option in manufacturing.
FuseBox’s thrust is simultaneously dead simple and entirely complex, but the most elementary level, it utilizes heat and electricity to increase the temperature of the material before and after each level is deposited. This serves to strengthen the body of the printed product where it’s traditionally weakest during the FDM (fused deposition modeling) print – the same layer-by layer technology employed by MakerBot and the majority of desktop 3D printers.
The resulting process, according to the company, creates a part that’s around 95-percent as strong as one created with injection molding. Not perfect, but most of the way there. And the 3D printed pieces the company had on hand certainly appeared far denser and more solid that most of what you’ll see coming out of an FDM printer, even at the industrial level.
“FDM typically has been plagued by a de-lamination problem,” the company’s president and CTO Blake Teipel told TechCrunch this week at Rapid. “It’s a layer-by-layer printing process, so you get an inherently weak bond between the layers. What we’re doing is reheating and post heating that plastic, creating a much larger heat affected zone in the plastic part. It makes the part stronger in all directions and between all those layers.”
The system is new and isn’t exactly cheap as far as components go, adding about $5,000 to the bottom line of these industrial systems, which run around $15,000 to $20,000. It’s fairly adaptable, however, meaning that any printer manufacture can partner with the company to integrate it into their system. A number of manufacturers are looking to 3D printing as a potential way forward, thanks to its high level of customization, versus more traditional methods of manufacturing. And Essentium’s solution could help address a key pain point.
Even so, at a show that is so heavily focused on bringing printing into the manufacturing mainstream, there are still plenty of issues left to address – scalability chief among them. Watching the FuseBox-enabled Stacker system slowly create a print, level by level really drives home how far the technology needs to go in order to address the problem of speed.