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Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing in an industrial setting, is a process by which material is selectively deposited on a build surface, layer by layer, to produce a 3-dimensional part. Although the technology emerged in the late 1980’s, researchers are still finding ways to improve factors such as the variety of materials that can be printed, the speed of printing and the quality of finished parts. When 3D printing first emerged, the technology was only being used to produce parts made of photopolymer resins using a process called stereolithography, but today, manufacturers are using 3D printing to produce many high strength plastics, along with metals such as titanium, stainless steel, and a variety of alloys. The number and types of materials continue to be expanded through breakthroughs researchers are making in AM.

Manufacturers across the world are currently using AM for a variety of use cases: rapid prototyping, enhancing / optimizing product design, rapidly making parts to assist with other aspects of production (e.g. jigs, fixtures and molds), small batch production runs, among others.

Through support by a DoD Office of Economic Adjustment grant, NC State’s Industry Expansion Solutions ( IES) has developed learning materials around AM, including a free, self-paced learning module to help small and medium sized manufacturers learn more about the technology, current uses and different types of materials used.

Through funds from our North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership Cooperative Agreement with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), IES now has access to a 3D printer that we will be using to work with North Carolina manufacturers who are interested in exploring AM. Our team will be working with small and medium sized manufacturers to help with determining ‘good fit’ projects for AM, providing 3D modeling and slicing support, printing a part (see the technology in action), navigating the cost-benefit decision of contracting out print jobs vs in-house machine implementation, and product and material testing.

About the Machine

Our Ultimaker S5 Pro is a fused filament fabrication (FFF / FDM™) machine that has a humidity controlled material station (bottom) and air handling unit (top). The S5 is a dual extrusion printer, which means it can be loaded with two different filaments at the same time. Often, this feature is used for the support material, which for this machine is a PolyVinyl Alcohol (PVA) synthetic polymer that dissolves when the finished part is soaked in a water bath. The dual extrusion feature can also be used to print parts with multiple colors. The machine is physically located at one of our partner facilities, the Polymers Center of Excellence, but our staff are able to access and print to the machine from anywhere with an internet connection to send print jobs and monitor through the onboard webcam. The S5 supports the full range of Ultimaker materials, which includes, but is not limited to: ABS, CPE+, Nylon, TPU 95A, and Ultimaker’s new Tough PLA material.

Expanded Capabilities through Partners

One of our NCMEP partners is Hangar 6, a premier makerspace associated with the First Flight Venture Center. This partnership provides access to Hangar 6’s five AM machines that have different capabilities, both in materials and print size. Hangar 6 recently announced exciting news that in 2021 they will be purchasing their first metal 3D printer, assisted by funds from the EDA. When we talk with manufacturers about their specific needs, we make a determination which machine / AM process is most appropriate for that specific application. We also tap into the expertise of Hangar 6’s shop manager, who has over 15 years of experience in design and 3D printing.