3D printed PEEK parts [Image: Vision Miner]
Navigating the learning curve of high-temperature 3D printing is less daunting with the experts.
Engineering-grade materials are increasingly coming into play in additive manufacturing, as strong thermoplastics already familiar to many users are formulated for 3D printing. These materials offer desirable benefits to users in industries from aerospace and automotive to medical and oil and gas. They can stand up to harsh operating environments and can even be used to replace some metal components. But ensuring that equipment is capable of handling these materials, and understanding the ins and outs of new processes, takes some getting used to.
It’s often not enough to buy a (very expensive) professional 3D printer able to work reliably with high-temperature needs; these materials aren’t exactly entry-level for new adopters. Working with a specialized service provider with established expertise offers a guide through new ventures and a foot in the door to the promise of additive manufacturing.
We recently caught up with Rob Lent, VP and Co-Founder of Costa Mesa, California-based Vision Miner for a chat about their approach to 3D printing.
How did Vision Miner become involved in high-temperature 3D printing?
“We were searching for stronger materials than we could print on our Ultimaker – ABS and PLA just weren’t cutting it for prototypes. That’s when we discovered PEEK, ULTEM PEI, and other high-temp materials, after looking at metal and other types of additive manufacturing.”
What sets Vision Miner apart in the increasingly busy 3D printing market?
“We’re also dedicated to customer support and education — either people already know and use PEEK, and they need help learning to print — or they’re already 3D printing, and want to upgrade material specs. Either way, our success is based on people successfully using these performance materials, and becoming more widespread. This means we’re doing comparative testing, sample parts, and other things to increase awareness and knowledge of these thermoplastics, as well as helping people learn to use them on open-material systems. Another big win for us is our Nano Polymer Adhesive — we eliminated a large chunk of time, and a lot of mess, from the printing process by developing our new high-temp build plate glue — this was internal, and we finally released it to the public in January.”
What machines do you work with? Which materials?
“We’ve been working with Intamsys as a company, and their Funmat (Functional-Material) printers for the last two years, and also have an Ultimaker and some off-brand open-source printers, as well. We stick to using our line of high-temp materials like PEEK, PEI, and PSU — but also use a good amount of Carbon-Fiber Nylon and Polycarbonate.”
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What led to the decision to offer 3D printing services in addition to machine sales? How has this expanded into higher-level projects?
“Because we receive a lot of sample requests, as well as some skepticism of the technology, we decided to offer printing services, so people could get their parts in these materials, without investing in an entire $6,000+ system. This decision was made after 6 months of doing jobs for major aerospace contractors — we’ve worked on satellites, the space-walk suit, and rocket nozzles, all in the last 6 months. This showed us that there is a huge demand for these materials — but often, the users of these materials don’t know they could be 3D printed. Many companies just want to save money on parts, or produce designs that can only be 3D printed. Our service eliminates the learning curve, so they don’t need to employ an operator or spend weeks mastering a system, or the materials. We do the job for you, and have found that working closely with each client is essential to getting the right product.”
What applications are well-suited to 3D printing with high-temperature thermoplastics?
“Many applications have to do with high operating temperatures, chemical resistance, radiation resistance, or weight reduction/strength. These materials are much lighter than common metals, so they’re often used to replace metals in space projects. Often we see use-cases with sulfuric acid, radiation, or other extreme environments, especially in the Oil & Gas industry. Medical devices are another big opportunity — PEEK and PPS are often used in devices, because they can be autoclave-sterilized and are very strong, for mechanical levers and guides.”
What applications do you expect to see grow in the next few years?
“We’re seeing a lot of activity in machine shops, for tooling and fixtures, and parts for proprietary processes. We’re also seeing an increase in medical device prototypes, since the materials can be sterilized, and are very strong. Mostly, though, the big area is aerospace — we’re working with some large aerospace companies, who are using materials in ways that were previously impossible — extremely small, detailed parts, as well as larger, structural components. The Space industry is really taking these printers to another level — we’ve seen many applications to replace metal in the last few months. Unfortunately, I can’t give many specifics at this time, due to NDAs.”
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Can you share any examples of projects you’ve worked on with clients that showcase the benefits of 3D printing as compared to traditional manufacturing techniques?
“Most of what we do is shrouded in NDAs, but one great example was a small, 3″x3″ bracket made of PEEK. The client was previously machining these parts out of individual, $300 blocks of PEEK. When 3D printed, the part was less than $10. I see a lot of companies adopting the printers and print service, just to cut costs massively. These plastics are common already, but are generally machined or injection-molded. For low-volume production, 3D printing is a no-brainer — often, set-up fees for an injection molding project can be twice the cost of an entire printer.”
How can Vision Miner help potential adopters who are new to additive manufacturing?
“A cornerstone of our business is education; finding the right solutions for our customers. This isn’t always FDM, so we start with qualifying the application for these machines, and materials. Next, the customer has to know that FDM printers require some skill, and an operator, much like a CNC machine, though much less intensive. If they don’t have the personnel to run the machines, or want to qualify parts before investing in a system, that’s where our print service comes in. We help by assessing the parts, design, and process, to make sure they’re on the right track. From there, we help them one-on-one for the first few weeks, as they learn to print. After that, we provide support for all the machines and materials we sell, and are here to help people integrate the process in their business.”
‘Try before you buy’ is becoming an increasingly popular approach as 3D printing continues to industrialize, embraced by service providers and the high-temperature 3D printer manufacturers themselves. Vision Miner’s approach establishes familiarity and ensures comfort for new users as the demanding environments for these applications also demand expertise in component creation.
Find out more about Vision Miner’s offerings here.