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Texas A&M University Researchers Invent Technology to overcome 3D Printing’s ‘Weak Spot’

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Texas A&M and Essentium, Inc. researchers have developed a way to more effectively weld adjacent printed layers together.

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Above: Texas A&M and Essentium researchers have developed the technology to weld adjacent 3D printed layers more effectively/Image Credit: Essentium Inc.

Researchers at Texas A&M University, in collaboration with scientists in the company Essentium Inc. have now developed the technology needed to overcome 3D printing’s “weak spot.” By integrating plasma science and carbon nanotube technology into standard 3D printing, the researchers welded adjacent printed layers more effectively, increasing the overall reliability of the final part.

According to Micah Green, associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, “Finding a way to remedy the inadequate bonding between printed layers has been an ongoing quest in the 3D printing field. We have now developed a sophisticated technology that can bolster welding between these layers all while printing the 3D part.”

Overcoming 3D Printing’s ‘Weak Spot’

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Above: Visible layer lines on an FDM 3D printed part/Image Credit: 3D Hubs

FDM is one of the most widely used 3D printing technology but studies show that adjacent layers of the 3D printed parts join imperfectly and they are comparatively weaker than similar injection moulded parts. To join these interfaces more thoroughly, additional heating is required, but heating printed parts using something akin to an oven has a major drawback.

Green added, “If you put something in an oven, it’s going to heat everything, so a 3D-printed part can warp and melt, losing its shape. What we really needed was some way to heat only the interfaces between printed layers and not the whole part.”

To promote inter-layer bonding, the team turned to carbon nanotubes. Since these carbon particles heat in response to electrical currents, the researchers coated the surface of each printed layer with these nanomaterials. Similar to the heating effect of microwaves on food, the team found that these carbon nanotube coatings can be heated using electric currents, allowing the printed layers to bond together.

To apply electricity as the object is being printed, the currents must overcome a tiny space of air between the printhead and the 3D part. One option to bridge this air gap is to use metal electrodes that directly touch the printed part, but Green said this contact can introduce inadvertent damage to the part.

The team collaborated with David Staack, associate professor in the J. Mike Walker ‘66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, to generate a beam of charged air particles, or plasma that could carry an electrical charge to the surface of the printed part. This technique allowed electric currents to pass through the printed part, heating the nanotubes and welding the layers together.

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Above: (A) 3D printed parts tend to display weak tensile properties in the y and z directions due to poor interlayer welding. To address this, we coated thermoplastic filament with a CNT-rich layer; the resulting 3D-printed part contains RF-sensitive nanofillers localized at the interface. (B) When a microwave field is applied, the interface is locally heated to allow for polymer diffusion and increased fracture strength/Image Credit: Science Advances

With the plasma technology and the carbon nanotube-coated thermoplastic material in place, Texas A&M and Essentium researchers added both these components to conventional 3D printers. When the researchers tested the strength of 3D printed parts using their new technology, they found that their strength was comparable to injection-moulded parts.

Green further explained, “The holy grail of 3D printing has been to get the strength of the 3D-printed part to match that of a moulded part. In this study, we have successfully used localized heating to strengthen 3D-printed parts so that their mechanical properties now rival those of moulded parts. With our technology, users can now print a custom part, like an individually tailored prosthetic, and this heat-treated part will be much stronger than before.”

The primary author of the research is C. Brandon Sweeney, a former Texas A&M materials science and engineering student in Green’s laboratory. He is the head of research and development and co-founder at Essentium Inc.

Other contributors to this research include Blake R. Teipel ‘16 and Bryan S. Zahner ‘14 from Essentium; Martin J. Pospisil ’19, Smit A. Shah ’19, and Muhammad Anas from the Texas A&M chemical engineering department; and Matthew L. Burnette from the Texas A&M mechanical engineering department.

Their findings are published in the journal Nano Letters. This work is supported by funds from the National Science Foundation.


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