Merging molecular science and engineering to make 3D printing better, cheaper

Researchers at Imperial College London are merging the fundamental research of molecular science with the more end-of-use-focussed discipline of engineering to help propel the 3D printing industry into its next stage of development.

“The ability to create complex 3D objects, without the need for specific tooling, has paved the way for the rapid development of AM.” says Dr Billy Wu, lecturer at the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial. “3D printing is becoming an increasingly important manufacturing technique for medical, aerospace and motorsport applications.”

Additive manufacturing (AM), popularly known as 3D printing, has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. The global AM market was worth $6bn in 2016 and is predicted to be worth more than $26bn by 2022.

However, the uptake of AM technologies in many other industries is still limited by barriers such as the high cost of AM machines and materials, as well as lengthy overall 3D-printing processes.

In addition, there are still fundamental technological challenges that need to be addressed before AM can be more widely adopted. For instance, the industry needs better design software, more consistency in quality assurance practices, better intellectual property protection and more suitably trained personnel.

According to the researchers, the use of the molecular science and engineering approach can also help overcome some of the challenges and allow more-effective translation of research into industrial applications.

Dr Shoshana Weider, communications manager at Imperial’s Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering, added: “By bringing researchers, from a host of disciplines, together with other stakeholders we aim to provide fertile ground for stimulating innovation.”

Some of the ongoing AM-based research at Imperial includes the development of multifunctional AM lattice structures that could ultimately be used in large civil engineering projects. The aim is to fabricate devices such as pipes and cables that have other features built into them such as being able to double up as a conduit for electronics.

Imperial researchers are also investigating ways of improving how metals are used in the 3D printing process. For example, considering ways of optimising printed components through a better understanding of the structural complexity at the molecular scale.

Another team is exploring how to reduce the cost of 3D printing metal components. At present, a technique known as direct metal laser sintering is the most common method for 3D printing of metals, but this expensive approach often produces parts with substantial defects. The Imperial researchers are developing a low-cost electrochemical AM printing method that does not involve the use of lasers that can be used to produce large-scale, high-quality multi-material parts.