ProPrint Technology Focus: 3D print out of the shadows

This article appeared in the June issue of ProPrint, to view the magazine online, please click here.

3D printing is by no means new. The technology has existed for over 30 years but its understanding in the public consciousness has soared as the coronavirus pandemic swept the world bringing with it a critical need for fittings for face shields, face mask filters and parts for lifesaving ventilators.

Never before has 3D garnered so much public attention.

Through the height of the crisis, it made the news everyday as universities, governments, schools, motorsport teams and teenagers busied themselves producing urgently needed components.

Yes, this uptick was driven by a sharp rise in demand and the grinding halt of supply chains, but what it also did was highlight the applications of 3D print and reframe the thinking around what it can be used for.

Many in the printing industry would be familiar with 3D print and the layering technology it employs to produce real products in three dimensions.

3D printing was invented as a way to create prototypes which set the course for traditional mass manufacturing.

But as the quality of the gels and inks that are used to create 3D products have improved, and as the printing technology has reduced in price and become more user friendly, this notion of 3D just being for prototyping is shifting into a more end-use mindset.

This shift has opened up new avenues for 3D printing.

Adding 3D
A number of printers – particularly signage and display specialists – are already using 3D as part of their offer with great success.

Other companies may have started in traditional printing or print management and have now morphed into being a 3D print only business on a pay per print model.

Adding 3D works better for some printers than others, but the prospects in this sector are becoming more apparent, particularly if a printer has the right clients and a willingness to step into this new area.

Sydney’s Coleman Group is an exhibition and signage specialist and last year stepped into 3D printing by investing in a Massivit 1800 Pro through Graphic Art Mart at PrintEx19.

When Sydney’s Coleman Group signed on the dotted line the idea was to produce channel lettering for existing and new customers.

And while yes, these applications have been put to good use, the technology also came in handy when the coronavirus pandemic created an almost overnight need for lifesaving personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Graphic Art Mart were quick to support their Massivit customers – Coleman Group, Artcom Fabrications and Composite Images – through the provision of a 19 kilogram bucket of gel and the digital files to make face shield channels.

But even prior to pandemic, Coleman Group’s 3D print journey was proving worthy.

So much so that the company has recently invested in a second 3D machine, this time a full colour Mimaki 3D UJ-553, which prints smaller items in high level detail with a full vibrant colour range.

Coleman Group director Rod Peter told ProPrint the company chose the Mimaki as more and more customers loved what the Massivit could do but also wanted 3D printed products in smaller formats with higher colour fidelity to the real thing.

The interest was sufficient for the company to launch, Mammoth 3D, which is a new brand under the Coleman Group banner.

Coleman Group directors Glenn Coleman and Rod Peter are still working out the market for the Mimaki, but do have a few loose ideas up their sleeve.

“We don’t really know where we are heading with it. We have always been the go-getters out the front of the market, buying new equipment. We don’t tend to go where other people go, we like to go where people aren’t,” Rod said.

“We first saw the 3D technology with the Massivit and we are just trying to educate clients that there are possibilities outside the flat two dimensional signs.”

Rod said the quality that could be produced off the Mimaki was mind boggling.

The other noteworthy feature is the simple post-production finishing – all that is needed is for the item, once set, to be placed in a bucket of water to soak off the supports.

The Mimaki was purchased through Julian Sing at Headland Machinery, whose passion and interest in 3D printing was undeniable.

“The Mimaki is perfect for anything that requires an highly realistic high-fidelity colour, so museums, exhibition spaces, medical fields and as training tools in medical training, it can be used to create a museum of human body parts for students to study, including hearts and kidneys that are so life like,” Sing said.

“Mimaki’s understanding of colour management, resolution and blending colours has made this printer really stand out,” Sing said.

“It is able to print 10 million colours.

“The next best thing out there that does half a million colours but also when you are talking about skin tones and subtle differences between colour, the Mimaki can do it.”

3D steps up to challenge

Graphic Art Mart’s WA business manager Michael Liveris said the coronavirus has given 3D printing the opportunity to come into its own as a supplier of parts.

His experience has shown that the signage and display printers that have moved into this area have been able to create markets and generate extra revenue.

“The coronavirus has really put 3D printing on the map,” Liveris told ProPrint.

Liveris said Coleman Group, Artcom Fabrications and Composite Images in Sydney all began producing the face shield frames when the pandemic hit.

“Anyone with a Massivit printer managed to get benefit out of it and it really opened them up to new clients at the same time,” he said.

“The 3D printing creates a channel so they can slide the PET plastic into it so they could make the face mask. Then the printer could cut the plastic on the CNC router or by laser cutting.”

Artcom Fabrications installed their Massivit in early 2019 and have been finding great success with the machine.

In addition to manufacturing PPE, they have also been making dashboards for boats and other items. Most recently was the production of an amazing coral reef which uses creating lighting to create different imagery.

The provision of parts for the oil and gas industries and the motor and maritime industries are other areas where the Massivit technology can be employed with great effect.

3D partnerships

Konica Minolta has also entered the 3D space by partnering with US companies, 3D Systems and Markforged.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, one of Konica Minolta’s customers, supercar company Erebus, contacted the company to offer its services using 3D Systems technology to 3D print a face mask connector. After several iterations, the final product was approved and then printed in bulk using 3D technology.

Konica Minolta then contacted its 3D customers to see if they could join the effort.
The result was fruitful with many operating around the clock to produce the items to answer a critical demand.

Eric Holtsmark, General Manager — Strategy, Transformation and Technology, at Konica Minolta said the pandemic has allowed 3D printing to show its worth and will continue to grow.

“3D is increasing, it is a growing market absolutely,” Holtsmark said.

“As all of the material properties, whether it be plastic or metal develop, also comes a whole new range of opportunities of what you can actually switch over from traditional CNC to 3D and it is just continuing to grow.”

Mirroring the digital print transition

Matt Hunter, Konica Minolta’s innovation product manager, likens the growth of 3D to the offset printing to digital transition, which similarly was driven by the demand for variable data and personalisation.

Like digital printing, 3D allows for easy design adjustments in CAD which in turn minimises waste as the exact amount of material is used to produce the item.

This type of production also reduces freight charges as the design can be emailed to a local provider, who can print the item in the same location.

“What is happening is quite similar to the transition from offset to digital. Like traditional print, manufacturing runs minimum order quantities but as the world shifts and we become more focused on a product that is just for me, rather than a product that is mass manufactured, manufacturing runs get shorter and shorter,” Hunter said.

“It ends up becoming more cost-effective to transition these manufacturing processes from a traditional process, like an offset process, to a digital process, which is a 3D printing process.

“So there are some real similarities there to what we went through when we went through that massive transition from offset printing to digital printing.”

Currie Group, which distributes the HP Indigo digital printing technology plus other brands in Australia and New Zealand, is also now operating in the 3D space after investing in 3D company EVOK3D last year.

The investment has allowed Currie Group to use its vast sales, distribution and service network to supply HP 3D printers in Australia and New Zealand, with around 20 HP 3D production units now operating around the country in a variety of sectors.

Currie Group Sales and Marketing Director Phillip Rennell nominates orthotics as one of the key markets for 3D printing in Australia, as it relies on a customised product.

Rennell agrees the coronavirus has made people stop and think about supply chain and distribution and how to safeguard against potential disruptions in the future.

“What this pandemic has done is highlight that you can print on demand in 3D and you can do things that previously were not thought possible,” Rennell told ProPrint.

“So people are now thinking about where are my vulnerabilities and how do I eliminate those from my supply chain.

“I think this is where it is at. In terms of mass production in China that is going to be there, that is going to stay. But when you come down the chain and you need to replace a component in Alice Springs and I can’t get that from China you then need to be able to make that part locally.

“I think we are starting to see that transformation take place. People are more accustomed to it.

The digital file is available and the item can be printed anywhere in the world.”

Rennell says 3D printing requires a different understanding compared to digital printing and will therefore have its own market, but this does not mean a digital printer could not turn their hand to it.

“For me it is not a matter of saying ‘could a printer do it?’. Of course, a printer could do it,” Rennell said.

“But you are not working with the same files. You are not working with a PDF file which is a flat single dimension file, it is a three-dimensional file instead which has a different format and has different characteristics so you need to understand that.

“I think if you are a printing company who wants to offer 3D as a service then you would need to go and get that expertise to understand it.”

Sue Threlfo, Konica Minolta’s general manager of production and industrial print, shared a similar view about the ease with which a commercial printer could implement 3D into their service offering.

She said if a printer had clients in the medical fields, it could be possible to extend into 3D as a way to further service those clients.

“If you had the right client base then it really would make sense and be a new opportunity and a new conversation to have with your customers and add value to their business,” Threlfo told ProPrint.

“But it wouldn’t be for everyone. You would have to have the right sort of market or have a whole new business to apply it.”

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