The future of 3D printing is clear

Whether manufacturing personalised surgical guides, eye-catching consumer packaging, cutting-edge prototypes or anything in between, there are numerous advantages to 3D printing in transparent plastics.

The new materials designed, manufactured and supported by 3D Systems have pushed clear printing to the boundaries of what’s possible, offering ultra-high transparency, moisture and temperature resistance, biocompatibility, robustness and performance.

To learn more, The Manufacturer spoke with Sam Green, rapid prototyping specialist and category manager for professional printing solutions at 3D Systems.

What are the key applications where clear parts are asserting themselves?

When testing fit, function, serviceability, and assembly, see-through parts replace guesswork with observation and insights - image courtesy of 3D Systems.
When testing fit, function, serviceability, and assembly, see-through parts replace guesswork with observation and insights – image courtesy of 3D Systems.

Sam Green: Clear 3D printed parts offer several unique characteristics that create significant benefits in three key applications –functional testing, aesthetics and medical & dentistry.

Let’s start with functional testing. There are several applications where clear material enables a design engineer to better test the functionality of a system or a part.

For example, imagine you’re an automotive engineer who wishes to test the oil or water flow through various interconnected channels and parts in a new system being developed. During the prototyping or development stage, you need to visualise how liquid flows through the system to verify whether your design for the pipes, vents or parts is correctly optimised.

Clearly, there are a few things to consider here. Firstly, that the printed material is clear enough that you can see the liquid flowing through the system. Secondly, that the material can withstand a high enough temperature that it doesn’t deform if the intended use is to transport heated water, oil or steam.

Thirdly, that the material is robust enough that it can be fitted to an operational engine block, and that once fitted and the engine begins to vibrate and liquid is flowing at pressure, the material doesn’t rupture.

That’s functional testing. There is also an aesthetic application. Consumer electronics is just one area where products feature clear, clean, minimalist looks, which can be very fashionable and highly desirable for potential buyers.

All three of today’s major video game console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) have, for example, released clear transparent controllers or consoles, and all carried a premium price tag. These parts would need to be prototyped in a clear material as similar as possible to the end-product.

The Production and Use of Clear Parts with 3D Printing

The Production and Use of Clear Parts with 3D Printing - 3D Systems eBookTo find out how the combination of clear materials and 3D printing can bring new insights and innovations, as well as significant savings in time and cost, click here to download an exclusive ebook.

Another example would be cosmetics and packaging. Perfume and aftershave for example is typically sold in a glass or plastic glass-substitute bottle.

The look and the shape of this container is a critical factor in the ultimate success of the product and directly effects the consumer’s purchasing decision.  But glass as a prototype is a material unsuitable for fast, iterative development cycles. What’s needed is a prototype material that offers the same visual properties as glass, but can be quickly iterated and can accommodate sometimes quite radical design changes.

By 3D printing with a clear material, a packaging manufacturer can cost-effectively, quickly and easily produce unique cosmetic packaging designs. These can be sent to the brand owner, and the packaging manufacturer receives confirmation for a new design that they wouldn’t have even explored in normal circumstances.

That’s a great example of how 3D printing enables a manufacturer to explore new market options, to provide a better customer experience, and to achieve business growth. You also mentioned medical & dentistry.

Medical and dentistry is a very relevant area for clear 3D printing. Imagine creating a transparent surgical model where you can selectively dye or colour different parts to represent various organs or different layers within those organs such as muscle, blood vessels, arteries, veins. Where you can selectively colour a tumour within a clear organ and visibly map its growth.

These capabilities would significantly help a surgeon communicate with their patient, being able to not just explain, but show exactly what is going on, and where and how treatment will proceed.

Selectively coloring clear materials helps give a better view of specific anatomical features - image courtesy of 3D Systems.
Selectively coloring clear materials helps give a better view of specific anatomical features – image courtesy of 3D Systems.

The difference between a surgeon showing a 2D drawing of a general heart in a medical textbook and pointing to various parts of it with a pencil, versus taking a scan of that patient’s actual heart and printing a full-scale model of it is huge in terms of quality patient care.

Imagine how much calmer the patient will be, how much more relaxed and confident they would be going into the procedure.

Imagine also how much more confident the surgeon would be after having mapped, planned and practiced on the 3D printed version of the heart, rather than relying on an exploratory procedure where the surgeon is forced to improvise and where the chance of unexpected complications raises exponentially. The ability to save lives by planning complex procedures using 3D printing is a very compelling argument. And clear materials are key to that success.

Dentistry is less about producing demonstration aids or surgery practice models, and more about practicality. Something like a crown, bridge or false tooth is typically held in place by a metal screw, which means a hole must be very precisely drilled into the patient’s gum. The dentist must be very careful when drilling that hole to avoid hitting a blood vessel and causing hemorrhaging inside the mouth.

The benefit of 3D printing a transparent guide that exactly matches the shape and contours of a patient’s mouth or fits perfectly over a patient’s gum is obviously apparent. The drill procedure will be more accurate and the dentist will know instantly whether the procedure has been successful or if a blood vessel has been inadvertently struck.

What are some of the challenges associated with printing clear parts and what has 3D Systems done to overcome those challenges?

A key challenge is to effectively combine transparency with functionality. We’ve managed to overcome that thanks to a new material we’ve developed and recently launched – VisiJet Armor (M2G-CL). Its’ a tough, ABS-like clear performance plastic which combines tensile strength, flex and surface quality, and it has been designed to deliver advanced prototyping performance to meet almost any engineering need.

3D Systems - Advantages of Clear 3D PrintingAnother challenge is temperature resistance. We have developed and launched a new thermally resistant (up to 279˚F), robust plastic – Accura Phoenix (SLA) – that offers very high clarity to improve viewing of hot fluid flow in complex automotive parts, as well as viewing of internal structures in assembly work.

So, where does the future lie?

Firstly, being able to print clear materials in more systems; that’s an area the whole 3D printing industry will move towards. Secondly, achieving even greater clarity. 3D Systems has already moved the dial in that regard with our Accura ClearVue (SLA) material; it is incredibly clear and really does look like PMMA or acrylic.

The ability to tint or colour clear materials straight off the printer is something that could potentially become commonplace, alongside the ability to print ultra-clear plastics with tear-resistant rubber-like qualities.

The other area is bio-compatibility, i.e. having your materials rated for direct skin contact. We are currently the only vendor to have five clear 3D printing materials that feature biocompatibility, and that is another area the whole 3D printing industry will look to emulate.

Learn more about how your business could leverage the power of 3D printing:

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