3D Systems Figure 4: from prototype to production
3D Systems kicked off the International Manufacturing Trade Show (IMTS) in Chicago with a presentation outlining how it is positioning itself to capitalize as 3D printing shifts from being a primarily prototyping technology to one that’s used in a wider range of manufacturing applications.
A key component of 3D Systems’ strategy is its new technology, Figure 4, which the company claims is up to 50 times faster than conventional stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing systems. Figure 4 is a robotic, modular, SLA 3D printing system designed for the production of plastic parts.
Figure 4 technology: how it works
Figure 4, unveiled earlier this year and recently updated, gets its name from the Fig. 4 illustration in 3D Systems founder Chuck Hull’s original patent filing for SLA in 1984. SLA is a photopolymerization 3D printing technology, meaning it uses light to harden polymers (a materials class that includes plastics). Rival Stratasys also has a well-established photopolymerization technology — its proprietary PolyJet — but doesn’t offer a super-fast process, like Figure 4.
Figure 4 sports four key features that 3D Systems believes will enable it to succeed as a manufacturing technology that’s a “viable and intelligent alternative to injection molding“:
- Fast speed
- Ability to be incorporated into an automated production process
- In-line parts inspection capabilities
- Vastly increased materials capabilities
Speed, materials capabilities, automation, in-line inspection, and surface quality are widely considered to be the main hurdles holding 3D printing back from making greater inroads into manufacturing applications beyond very short-run ones.
3D Systems has housed this technology in discrete modules, enabling it to be placed into automated assembly lines, and integrated with secondary processes, including material recovery, washing, curing, and various finishing procedures.
The latest Figure 4 development involves the incorporation of automatic, in-line 3D inspection of parts for closed-loop manufacturing.
3D Systems claims that it has made materials breakthroughs with Figure 4 tech, primarily stemming from the fact that a greatly accelerated photopolymerization process means that liquid polymers are not sitting in vats for nearly as long as they do in the standard SLA process. This opens up the possibilities of using material chemistries that don’t have to be nearly as stable.