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A Movable 3D Printing Build Platform to Reduce Waste and Save Time

Movable 3D Printing Build Platform
Above: 3D printing a gymnast model to test the movable build platform/Image Source: Professor Yong Chen

Researchers at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, located at the University of Southern California in the United States, have developed a unique low-cost dynamically-controlled movable 3D printing build platform to reduce the waste resulting from support structures and save printing time.

This project is led by Yong Chen, professor of industrial and systems engineering, and Ph.D. student Yang Xu, which has been published in Science Direct.

Traditional 3D Printing Build Platforms

Movable 3D Printing Build Platform
Above: Prevalent FDM build platform/Image Source: Makers Muse

3D printing is a layer-by-layer building process where each layer acts as a base for the next layer. The first layer is deposited onto the 3D printing build platform, the second layer on top of the first layer, and so on till the entire object is created.

In the case of complex or non-conventional shapes, some parts of the design cannot be supported by the previous layer and in such situations, the slicing software has to compensate by creating an additional structure to support the layer to be printed later in the print. This support structure is not necessary to the overall print but only acts as a catalyst for completing the main model. Without the support structure, this model will not be printed successfully.

New Build Platform

To eliminate the use of 3D printing support structures, Professor Chen and his team developed a novel prototype that uses a programmable, dynamically-controlled moving 3D printing build platform made of moveable metal pins to replace the 3D printed supports instead of a stationary platform. The pins rise as the printer progressively builds the product.

Above: Reusable support for 3D Printers/Video Source: USC Viterbi/YouTube

According to Chen, “The testing of the new prototype has shown it saves around 35% in materials used to print objects. I work with biomedical doctors who 3D print using biomaterials to build tissue or organs. A lot of the material they use is very expensive­–we’re talking small bottles that cost between $500 to $1000 each. For standard FDM printers, the materials cost is something like $50 per kilogram, but for bioprinting, it’s more like $50 per gram. So if we can save 30% on material that would have gone into printing these supports, that is a huge cost saving for 3D printing for biomedical purposes.”

In addition to the environmental and cost impacts of material wastage, prevalent 3D printed support structures also result in a waste of time.

Chen continued, “When you’re 3D printing complex shapes, half of the time you are building the parts that you need, the other half of the time you’re building the supports. So with this system, we’re not building the supports. Therefore, in terms of printing time, we have a savings of about 40%.”

Movable 3D Printing Build Platform
Above: Professor Yong Chen/Image Credit: Jeffrey Fiterman

Chen explained that similar prototypes developed in the past relied on individual motors to raise each of the mechanical supports, resulting in highly energy-intensive products that were also much more expensive to purchase, and thus not cost-effective for 3D printers.

“So if you had 100 moving pins and the cost of every motor is around $10, the whole thing is $1,000, in addition to 25 control boards to control 100 different motors. The whole thing would cost well over $10,000.”

The research team’s new prototype works by running each of its supports from a single motor that moves a platform. The platform raises groups of metal pins at the same time, making it a cost-effective solution. Based on the product design, the program’s software would tell the user where they need to add a series of metal tubes into the base of the platform. The position of these tubes would then determine which pins would raise to defined heights to best support the 3D printed product, while also creating the least amount of wastage from 3D printed supports. At the end of the process, the pins can be easily removed without damaging the product.

Chen said the system could also be easily adapted for large-scale manufacturing, such as in the automotive, aerospace, and yacht industries.

Chen added, “People are already building FDM printers for large size car and ship bodies, as well as for consumer products such as furniture. As you can imagine, their building times are really long—we’re talking about a whole day. So if you can save half of that, your manufacturing time could be reduced to half a day. Using our approach could bring a lot of benefits for this type of 3D printing.”

Chen revealed that the team has also applied for a patent for the new technology. The research was co-authored by Ziqi Wang, previously a visiting student at USC, from the School of Computer and Communication Sciences, EPFL Switzerland, and Siyu Gong from USC Viterbi.


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