Starting next month, Arburg will begin series production of the AKF system following a 20-customer pilot program that began last July in Germany. Sales of the machine will also begin next month in America, the birthplace of additive manufacturing and the largest market for the technology.
Arburg will show two Freeformers at the NPE, one of which will be producing elastomeric TPU material with a special support material, which is described as a first in additive manufacturing. Possible applications include bellows, hoses, sleeves, or flexible components for robotic grippers. The supporting structures can subsequently be removed in a water bath.
Call the Freeformer the anti-3D printer. Whereas much of the hoopla from players like 3D Systems is on cheap machines for the “maker” movement, the Freeformer is a full-fledged industrial machine meant to complement injection molding.
And that’s precisely why the Freeformer is so important.
It uses standard plastic pellets while 3D printers use pricey specialized materials. Think $90/lb versus a buck or two. Some 3D printers use highly specialized materials that do not have the same mechanical properties as standard plastics.
There will be the opportunity to use a much broader range of plastics in the Freeformer compared to the ABS and PLA most commonly used in 3D printers. Parts made in the Freeformer will have a greater density (86 percent vs 80 percent for ABS) than 3D printers because of improved fusing in the AKF system.
Companies with a deep design engineering bench will benefit the most from the Freeformer. The greatest potential may be for very complex parts that mate elastomeric and rigid plastics such as polyamide, ABS, or polycarbonate. One example is the reinforcement of housings that have flanges.
Product designers need to be involved very early and they need to understand the potential of a system that make parts directly from CAD files in tiny layers, added one at a time. The most ingenious will design parts that do not require a supporting structure, if possible.
Engineers now design parts with mold constraints in mind: draft angles, deep undercuts, nominal wall thickness, and so on. None of these constraints exists with additive manufacturing.
Arburg is the only plastics machinery manufacturer involved in additive manufacturing. As a result, Arburg has a unique, molding-oriented mindset. That’s why the system starts with standard pellets and not filaments or exotic materials. Arburg understands what molders want while companies like 3D Systems are chasing individual consumers and stock market analysts.
For starters, Freeformers may be paired with injection molding machines to offer immediate customization of mass-molded parts. In the not-to-distant future, they will be making parts now considered impossible to make on a cost-effective basis on a large scale.