This part, produced on Arburg’s new Freeform additive manufacturing machine, clearly shows the potential of working with an elastomeric material in combination with a rigid plastic.
When I saw Arburg’s press conference invitation I knew they had something up their sleeve. I have to admit, I did think, I’ve seen curtains and suspense, and been disappointed. The cynic in me thought “Oh, probably just another machine”. A fellow onlooker said, “Have they launched a tie-bar-less machine?”. I responded: “Probably a bigger or faster all electric?” But when the curtain came down, accompanied with digital screens, music and a gymnast chosen to reflect the machine’s flexibility—all of which were more at home at a rock concert than a plastics trade show—I got the feeling people were thinking “I don’t know what that it is but it looks pretty cool.”
The Freeform is Arburg’s offering of a patented additive manufacturing machine. They are talking of it being “a new era” in plastics processing. And it is the main talking point of the K show so far. Fed by granulate (as against filament) and claiming significantly reduced material costs compared with existing additive manufacturing machine suppliers—they do away with cartridges and filaments, thereby saving the cost of processing these from granulates—to the uninitiated in additive manufacturing the machine looks to offer much promise from technical and commercial standpoints.
Technically, Arburg are talking about the potential to process more materials, colours, compounds—or more generally engineered plastics. The machine also seems to be capable of running multi-material parts. This process works with a tow nozzle—no purging in between is needed.
The panel presenting at the press conference specifically mentioned elastomers, polycarbonate and a wide gamut of colours. Responding to a question from yours truly, “Colours are not a problem,” one of the panel said. “We are also working with high temperatures, although we have done less investigation here”, the panel member added. Don’t forget, Arburg are experts in moulding of silicones and powdered metals too. So there may be scope for development in these materials too.
My only other experience of a large supplier to the plastics processing sector moving into additive manufacturing is with US engineering materials manufacturer PolyOne, who announced work with leading additive manufacturing firm RP+M some months back. PolyOne have some of the best know-how in developing custom engineered materials for specific performance applications.
At the recent TCT show in Birmingham, UK, one of the world’s most important trade shows dedicated to additive manufacturing, I was fortunate to speak to two experts in additive manufacturing who were using the technology to produce high coloured plastic puzzles. The message from them was clear. “We suffer from a limited supply of materials, especially where colours are concerned. Shrinkage is unpredictable, which means we waste approximately 50% of our plastic, which is expensive and time consuming.” An expert in colorants and additives was party to the conversation: “Different colorants will cause major differences in shear rate and ultimately shrinkage. The difference between yellow and red may cause a change in shrinkage factor of 12% dimensionally.”
Arburg seem to have these issues covered, or so they say. But the machine remains less than 24 hours old. So the jury will certainly be out, especially as far as the established additive manufacturing suppliers and users are concerned.
Commercially, people are saying that the very fact Arburg have taken this step could be a “game changer”. With a turnover of approaching Euro500 mn in their latest financial year, and with competitors Engel and KraussMaffei pushing close to Euro900 mn each, the potential reach to new users looking for production parts is vast.
Commenting on the Arbrug move, James Woodcock, group editor of authority additive manufacturing magazine TCT—which has been in circulation for 20 years—said: “The fact that a large established manufacturing company such as Arburg has entered the additive manufacturing market is unprecedented and of huge interest to the wider additive manufacturing and 3D printing community. There has been much speculation about a large machine tool company entering the market but the rumours always centred around the metals processors rather than plastics.”
Talking about the commercial potential, James added: “The current install base of Arburg’s traditional processing technologies not only dwarfs the install base of any dedicated additive manufacturing machine maker, but also the entire base of industrial additive manufacturing machines. This opens up a truly significant new market to the possibilities of additive manufacturing for prototyping and production and could be part of a catalyst that drives the industrial applications of additive manufacturing into the manufacturing mainstream.”
Closing James said: “How the existing players will react to the announcement awaits to be seen, but I believe this move can only have positive implications for the current and potential users of additive manufacturing technologies worldwide.”
So, in summary, it seems this “bombshell” as Plastics Today magazine described it, will bring a new angle to both the additive manufacturing sector, for prototyping and production, and may also shore up investment from large established suppliers of machinery and materials involved in polymer and metal processing. Hopefully, an end goal of making engineers lives easier, giving designers “freedom” and “liberty”, or “free form”, as Arburg have coined it, drawing a contrast with the limitations of injection moulding, or “breaking the mould”, if you’ll excuse the pun, is not too far away.