Intersection of 3D printing and laser cutting: A new paradigm in manufacturing

  • Articles
  • May 17,24
The intersection of 3D printing and laser cutting remains a niche area. However, it should gain prominence when people learn about use cases that demonstrate versatility and viability, says Emily Newton.
Intersection of 3D printing and laser cutting: A new paradigm in manufacturing

Although 3D printing and laser cutting are two distinctive manufacturing methods — the former is additive and the latter is subtractive — some people have developed creative ways to use both in their projects. Which possibilities have they explored so far and what makes this a winning combination?

Creating user-customised products
Traditional methods of manufacturing customized equipment are often prohibitively expensive, and require specialized equipment or skills. 3D printers dramatically changed that because they provide quick ways to create personalized products. Then, professionals can manufacture specialized items much faster and more economically. Some 3D printing companies also offer in-house prototyping of custom medical items, filling gaps created when conventional products do not meet patients’ needs.

Combining 3D printing with laser cutting gives further customization options. In one recent example, Nils Sorger used the two methods to make an elbow brace during an internship at a German product design agency. This project relied on a scripted algorithm that creates the wearable product based on a user’s measurements and other individualized data. Sorger found combining 3D printing and laser cutting made complex shapes and structures that were difficult to recreate with conventional methods.

Manufacturers have already recognized how 3D printers help them use multiple materials in single projects. That capability was especially desirable for this elbow brace since laser cutters do not always have the same adaptability. While searching for optimal materials, the designer tested more than 70 fabric types, searching for those best suited to the laser cutter. The ultimately chosen option was a four-material blend that provided ample stretchiness for prolonged user comfort.

Additionally, the design process involved creating small, shaped pads with fused deposition modeling. This 3D printing method supported efficiently making accessories for inside the brace, facilitating comfort and movement.

An app walks people through taking their measurements, and then those parties can either create the brace on their 3D printers or order it for delivery.  The option to make it at home reinforces the convenience tabletop printers and laser cutters provide.

Fabricating satellite sensors
Manufacturing on an industrial scale requires precise conditions, which people often achieve with specialized equipment. For example, industrial laser chillers provide heat management for cutting equipment, preventing beam fluctuations and facilitating cleaner results for better quality control.

Researchers are eager to learn new ways of reliably creating equipment for mission-critical use cases. Finding the right setups and techniques could allow fabricators to boost output and reduce errors. One case of combining 3D printing and laser cutting originated at MIT and involved creating satellite sensors for orbiting spacecraft.

The hardware was economically and efficiently produced, and performed as well as cleanroom-manufactured sensors. Those usually have production timelines of weeks and are expensive. However, experts can make these for less than $100 in a few days.

3D printing was the main manufacturing method, and the team used a glass-ceramic material more durable than traditional sensor materials. They applied a technique typically used when working with plastics to make their sensors in complex shapes while ensuring the creations could withstand the demanding conditions of their anticipated use cases.

The sensors also have electrically charged perforated mesh. As plasma passes through it, the process strips away electrons and other particles, leaving only ions that create an electric current for the hardware to measure.
 
This hardware requires electrically insulated housing to keep the mesh aligned. The researchers used laser cutting to make the mesh with unique shapes that would line up perfectly with other sensor components once positioned.

The method's speed and cost-effectiveness allowed the team to make and test four designs. They also envisioned that other researchers could use this approach to streamline similar iterations.

Combining manufacturing methods in single machines
Some companies offer machines that can handle 3D printing, laser cutting and more. These options are especially attractive to professionals who regularly use multiple methods or do not have enough space to accommodate several equipment models. One such machine includes a dual-extrusion 3D printer, CNC router and diode-based laser engraver, complete with quick-change hardware to support seamless transitions between the three methods.

Another option is a 3D printer and laser engraver that attracted significant attention during its crowdfunding campaign. A switchable module allows people to go from 3D printing to laser engraving.

These possibilities cater to serious hobbyists who do not produce items on the industrial scale but are ready to branch out beyond one method. They also expand options for making products requiring 3D-printed and laser-cut components. Alternatively, if someone already knows one of these manufacturing methods and feels curious about trying the second, these machines give an accessible option.

Pushing manufacturing forward
Manufacturing has always relied and thrived on people willing to explore and push the boundaries of current methods. These pioneering examples show how strategically using laser cutting and 3D printing can pay off in convenience, cost savings and efficiency.

The intersection of 3D printing and laser cutting remains a niche area. However, it should gain prominence when people learn about use cases that demonstrate versatility and viability.

About the author:
Emily Newton is a tech and industrial journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized magazine. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily. 

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