UK team hails “game-changing” hybrid 3D printing process

Engineers at the AMRC in Sheffield have developed a hybrid 3D printing process that allows electrical, optical and structural elements to be introduced throughout an additively manufactured component during the build process

A component produced using the patent pending THREAD process

The so-called ‘THREAD’ process is able to add multiple types of material into one 3D printed component and could, it is claimed, open additive manufacturing to a greater range of uses.

“The development of this process is a potential game-changer,” said AMRC development engineer, and inventor of the technique, Mark Cocking.

“Working at the AMRC within the AM sector it has been obvious for a while that connectivity within AM components carries massive potential across multiple industry sectors,” he told The Engineer. “The process came as an answer to integration of industry standard connectivity within AM components.”

With the project currently at patent-pending status, Cocking was tight-lipped on specific technical details but he did confirm that the process – which is fully automated – is able to embed strands – and potentially even tubes – of different materials groups such as copper, fibre optic, steel, and nitinol during the 3D printing process. He added that the technique also allows unbroken connectivity through X, Y and Z axis directions and that single or multiple strands can be embedded at a rate that does not effect the original build time of the component.

Cocking added that the technique has potential in any application where weight and size of components is critical or where components would benefit from integrated data transfer and the protection of sealed connective tracks.”

The technology has so far been demonstrated on machines used for 3D printing polymer components but the team claims that it is suited for a variety of additive manufacturing (AM) platforms.

THREAD will be an advantage in the manufacture of components requiring encapsulated electronics. Components such as those used in medical prosthetics, consumer electronics or structural components that require electrical connections and until now, would have been secured externally to the component.

The nature of the ‘sealed’ conductive tracks could also be of benefit for components which may be sensitive to contamination from debris, corrosion or impact.

“THREAD has potential to be developed as an add-on technology for existing AM platforms and also incorporated into next generation AM technologies,” added Cocking.

AMRC’s Chris Iveson, who is driving the commercialisation of the technology, said: “We see THREAD transforming the functionality of additively manufactured components. Feedback from our contacts in various industries indicates a real need for this capability, with new potential applications being discussed daily.”