3D Printing Finds Its Mark

Awesome Apps Ltd

Like many technologies 3D Printing has taken its time to find its true vocation where the gains in digital processing are discovered by both leaders and followers. Often, new technologies need time to be matched with other skills and processes in order to be fully efficient. The advances in software, 3D scanners and 3D printers and light sensitive resins has now certainly reached this point.
Awesome Apps Ltd is the European Distributor for the new MoonRay series of DLP printers that are revolutionising the world of dental production, investment casting applications and rapid prototyping.

Taking the dentistry example – the traditional route has been to take a cast of the patient’s mouth, describe the changes, caps, bridges etc to be produced and send to the orthodontic lab for production. A sometimes error strewn procedure that required many visits and re-fitting to get things right. Thanks to the MoonRay and bio compatible resins a digital scan can allow a smile re-design with component part production in a matter of hours.

The MoonRay 3D printer works using the newest technology with an led based light source of defined wavelength. It uses an array of microscopic and individually controlled mirrors to project an ultra violet light onto very thin slivers of a UV resin held in a shallow tray. The layer is cured and begins to solidify before the light is re-focussed on the next layer and cured in the same way. The layers can be as little as 20 microns in height or about a quarter of the width of a human hair. The projector has been especially developed for the 3D printing application and is a custom built source of 405nm wavelength blue-violet light.

The detail produced is more than enough for many applications and there are three versions to match the applications. The S version has a larger build platform and can distinguish features to 100 microns, while the model D is commonly used in dentistry with a resolution of 75 microns. The highest resolution projector in the model J goes down to 50 microns and while it has a smaller working area than the others, it is capable of producing the finest detail on such items as filigree type jewellery.

The technology prints particularly accurate models that are dimensionally consistent across the entire build platform and items are not distorted by where they lie on the platform. Driven by easy to use software for the Mac or Windows platforms, the user can position, scale, rotate and duplicate the model at the click of a button. The software runs on a perfectly normal PC or laptop and requires no specialist training to operate. For parts requiring supports during the process the software automatically generates these, such that they are both easy to remove and useful in ensuring a correct solidification process. The system is commanded by the software via an Ethernet or wireless link and is free to perform other tasks during the actual printing. Using the intrinsic connectivity the printers can be part of a network to access the STL or OBJ models as well as be managed for loading and unloading.

This type of 3D printing technology has the net advantage that its is faster than the earlier laser driven (SLA) printers and can produce multiple parts in the time that the laser generation printers take to produce just one. The cost of ownership is further reduced by the longevity of the resin trays and a choice of compatible resins that are not exclusively proprietary.

The resins available are increasing all the time and are specific to the process in hand. For the dental sector there are proprietary and third-party resins for dental model formation, dental casting material, crowns and bridge resins, surgical guides and temporary dentures. Available in a range of colours these biocompatible resins are designed specifically for the task.

Outside of the dental sector there are resins for investment casting applications where the model is easy to work with and leaves no residue or ash after the burnout process. The model can come from a 3D design produced using a CAD package directly from the designer’s imagination. The jewellery or figure model can then be produced by the MoonRay J at the highest available resolution. The casting can then be made to the exact shape without endless re-working of the model.

Resins available for model making or rapid prototyping not only include the full range of colours but also varying material strength properties and even models with the ability to provide flexible constructions.

Aside from the availability of resins, 3D printing is now allied to some very mature solutions to capture patient data. Intra oral and fast desktop scanners provide very accurate 3D scanning data than can be used directly to model the mouth. The improvement in software has also played it’s part in these changes. Whereas scanning software required substantial manual intervention to complete the basic scan data much of it can now be captured automatically for editing or design. It has become entirely realistic to scan a dental patient’s mouth, make adjustments, produce a model and make caps or bridges all in the same day.

In the engineering world producing a prototype was often a dedicated or long winded process undertaken by specialist model makers in sometimes unrealistic materials when compared to the final version. Model making is an art in itself and to blend a particular shape required substantial skill and techniques as well as a considerable investment in cutting devices and machine tools.
Today, 3D printers are regularly used as part of the design iteration process in which a prototype or series of prototypes can be produced in the design office or production environment and in a matter of a few hours. This enables designers, users, marketing personnel and technicians to handle, feel and improve the solution before becoming a final production item. The actual design can also be enhanced in multitude of ways such as, combining a complex assembly of parts into one printed solution, reducing waste material often needed in the subtraction process, producing internal parts at the same time as external, enabling shaped items for a more efficient performance and many, many more.

Prototypes are not just limited to engineering. The fashion sector now makes use of these devices in producing adornments or accessories to handbags, belts, shoes and dresses. With very tight deadlines to adhere to several times a year, the design, make and delivery of these Zamac (a zinc alloy) components can be quickly substituted by a 3D print model and plated as prototypes for next week’s catwalk show long before traditional methods can produce them.

There are many applications in the medical sector too. To determine the difficulties in operating on a heart it is possible to use a CT scan to get an accurate digital heart model and the 3D print the model to practice and determine spacing measurements for an operation. Similarly, for specialist shoe components or supports, 3D printing can make the items exactly to the foot shape or medical design.

For their IT budgets many government entities have rightly placed emphasis on the digital connection between departments, populations and suppliers but there are areas where greater digital communication can be further enhanced by more tactile productions. Documents, pictures and presentations are all good for getting the points across but to really get the feel of a project or new device an in-house 3D model not only provides a realistic rendition of the idea but also details with room for improvement or modification. Where machines are to be issued to staff, discussions on the 3D layout of a room or building or the weighted feel of an instrument can be realistically measured. While such investments were initially restricted to outside of the office environment and often costed as major capital spend items, todays 3D printers cost less than a communications server or a web site update.

What seems like a design concept difficult to grasp and even more difficult to relay to investors, colleagues or users can often become straightforward when demonstrated in the form of a realistic model. The rapid turnaround of ideas into concrete examples is the essence of 3D printing and applicable to many more enterprises than are currently in use.

The MoonRay 3D printer offers a compact, speedy, professional and elegant solution backed by the software and thirty year, technology expertise of Awesome Apps Ltd.