As Malvern Instruments were sponsors at this year’s Malvern Festival of Innovation, Andrew Brock and I were invited to give a talk at the Advanced Engineering & Manufacturing symposium.  We chose to talk about additive manufacturing (AM) – more commonly known as 3D printing – and the impact it has had on design and production at Malvern.

In the last few years here has been a lot of hype about 3D printing and the amazing opportunities it presents, from creating copies of human organs to aid surgeons, to printing your own car.  Here at Malvern, our use of 3D printing may less awe inspiring, but it is starting to make a big difference to the way we design and produce our instruments.

At a basic level, additive manufacturing is taking a three-dimensional object from a 3D model by a process of material addition. In essence, one process is used to grow an object in layers, each layer fusing to the next.

Malvern had been using external prototype companies to produce rapid prototype parts by stereolithography (SLA) and selective laser sintering (SLS); however, approximately three years ago Malvern decided that it would be even better to have the ability in house and therefore invested in a 3D printer.

3D printing parts MalvernThe addition of the 3D printer has changed the way we develop our products and serves as a constant aid in the early manufacture of prototype parts to review look, fit, feel and shape.  The image to the left shows a metal part with complex machining.  We wanted to find a way to improve this part for manufacture, so made a 3D printed version which allowed us to quickly change the geometry.

The prototype parts we make with the 3D printed are predominantly released for production by a traditional process, due current limitations in materials, cost and volume production. However, there are some areas where we are actually using this technology to manufacture production parts.  For example, we recently put into production a 3D printed capillary cartridge for the Viscosizer with an improved design.

The 3D printer is also great for making quick life test jigs and production fixtures to solve problems which crop up in 3D printing jigs Malvernthe production process.  For example, the image to the right shows a 3D printed press jig used to hold all components in place whilst a pin is pressed in to hold a sprung loaded part in the metal housing.

We expect the use of 3D printing at Malvern to continue to grow over the next few years.  One of the ways we are investing in exploiting the method further is by sponsoring  an EngD student from Nottingham University who has been set the goal of identifying and generating appropriate items for additive manufacture in Malvern’s production portfolio.

One of the most exciting things about 3D printing for Malvern Instruments is that we can help to improve the performance of the materials used in the process itself.  The raw material powder and plastic extrusion are both key to the performance of parts manufactured by additive manufacturing processes.  Our instruments, including the Mastersizer 3000 and the Morphologi range can be used to characterise powders, providing size, shape and chemical composition.  Our rheometers, such as the Kinexus, can be used in the measurement of plastic extrusion properties.

LPW metal powders LPW  a UK-based global supplier of metal powders, is using particle characterization systems from Malvern to provide certified powders for additive manufacturing  applications in the aerospace, automotive and biomedical sectors.  Dr. Robert Deffley, Research and Development Manager at LPW Technology Ltd. described how the company is using the Morphologi G3 system, which measures particle shape, to “further advance our understanding of AM powder behavior, which will enhance our products enabling us to offer the highest quality powders, supplied to the tightest specification for repeatable, reliable results.”

So this puts us in the unique position of being able to work with manufacturers of powders to improve the materials which we may ultimately consume via 3D printing in the future!

Further Reading:

LPW Technology invests in Malvern systems to measure performance-defining properties of AM powders

Using laser diffraction to measure metal powders, from lab to line

How correlating powder flow properties with particle size and shape makes for better process engineering

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