Continuous fiber prints, no post-consolidation
The Wizard 480+ was created to meet a need for high-accuracy prints using a wide range of materials, including continuous carbon fiber and high-performance thermoplastics like PEEK, shown here. The print quality also offers high performance, evidenced by the excellent fiber-to-resin distribution and low void content in this five-layer print without post-consolidation. Photo Credit: APS Tech Solutions
APS Tech Solutions is a division of Automatisierte Produktions Systeme GmbH in Höchst, Austria. Founded in 1987, the company provides engineering, mechanical and robotic solutions for 3D waterjet cutting and tooling machines used in the automotive, aviation and mechanical markets.
“Three years ago, we wanted to have a very versatile 3D printer, but couldn’t find anything that met our requirements,” says Nicolai Wampl, business development for APS Tech Solutions. “So, we created our own system, the Wizard 480+, which we launched last year. It can print with continuous fiber, standard thermoplastic filaments, metal or ceramics.”
The Wizard 480+ has a print volume of 400 millimeters long x 230 millimeters wide x 370 millimeters high and a print bed that can be heated up to 200°C. Nozzles for continuous fiber filament printing can be heated up to 500°C.
Do we really need another desktop printer for industrial composites? “Our goal wasn’t a desktop printer for industrial use but more of an actual industrial machine,” says Wampl. “We wanted a versatile printer without restrictions but with a setup that is not overwhelming. For example, you can modify a low-cost desktop printer to be more versatile, but it requires a lot of know-how and time. On the other end is an industrial printer where you can print high-volume parts in a handful of materials, but if you want to print something new, it becomes difficult. We wanted to print parts using every material that is on the market, but in high quality.” For example, the spare part for a stamping tool discussed below required accuracy to 0.02 millimeters.
“The 3D waterjet cutting and tooling machines we work with must be precisely built to operate correctly,” explains Wampl. “We’ve put this knowledge into the Wizard 480+ to increase the accuracy of printed parts. Another difference is that we have a tool changing system like on a CNC machine, which allows us to use multiple kinds of materials in one print. For example, if a customer wants to use two different kinds of continuous fibers in a single print, it’s possible because the print heads are exchangeable. Prints may use high-performance plastics like PEEK [polyetheretherketone] and PEKK [polyetherketoneketone], as well as polyamide [PA] and commercially available FDM [fused deposition modeling] filaments. Not every part needs continuous fiber. We also have a printhead for simple ceramic and metal green parts using steel or titanium, for example.” Note that ceramic and metal parts would need to be sintered in a second step and wouldn’t include plastics because of this high-temperature post-processing.
Fig. 1. Open materials, easy setup
The Wizard 480+ can print with any continuous filament, including PEEK, PEKK and PA with continuous carbon fiber, as well as glass fiber and copper wire (lower right). It can also print with filled and unreinforced print filaments as well as metals and ceramics. Fiber and thermoplastic materials can be readily combined in a single print thanks to the system’s tool changer and exchangeable print heads. Photo credit: APS Tech Solutions
“Most companies have two separate machines for metals versus non-metals,” notes Wampl. “But for new developments, you don’t want to have to buy a new printer every time you trial a new material. We didn’t want a system that is closed and restricted, but instead a modular, flexible system, with which you can enhance or change the printed parts.” For example, the customer may want to print with continuous fiber and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). “This is a difficult material because its viscosity drops so rapidly that it’s hard to maintain consistency during printing. But we wanted a printer that could accommodate this.”
The Wizard 480+ is designed to print with any continuous filament, including glass fiber or copper wire. “Our standard continuous fiber filament is 1K carbon fiber/PA but we have also used PEEK and PLA [polylactic acid] and we can go up to 3K carbon fiber,” says Wampl. APS Tech Solutions wants to supply continuous filaments to the marketplace, but its printer is not restricted to these.
The Wizard 480+ is also open in its software. “We’ve always needed some special engineering,” says Wampl, “and that’s why we wanted to have the most amount of control. With many printers, you are a little bit restricted by the software. But with our software, you can place the fibers exactly where you want them, and you’re not restricted by any algorithm. Although you can use an algorithm to generate where the fibers should be, we wanted the engineers to control how to place the fibers because they know how the part is to be used and what kind of forces end up where.”
That being said, the system is relatively easy to use, says Wampl. “For example, to print with two different materials you create two different parts in CAD. You then choose which part is printed in which material using Simplify3D [Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.], a slicer software used for many industrial 3D printers. We then have a post-processor that creates the G code to print. Simplify3D enables the set up of all the printing parameters like infill layer height and density. For the post-process, you just drag and drop the file, and that will be adjusted to our machine because we have some features — like the tool changer and use of continuous fiber filaments — which are not very common.”
Photo credit: APS Tech Solutions
“We really have only one restriction,” says Wampl, “which is the length of the printed filament. We have a minimum length of 20 millimeters. If an engineer makes a particular printed length shorter than 20 millimeters, then we run into complications, and the post-process tells you that it’s not possible.”
Quality expected, delivered
The first Wizard 480+ customer was high-performance stamping tool manufacturer Stepper Fritz GmbH & Co. KG. (Pforzheim, Germany). “They needed a spare part for one of their tools and asked if we could print it,” says Wampl. “They had struggled to find a 3D printer for the job due to the complex geometry and combination of materials required, including continuous carbon fiber, thermoplastic matrix and water-soluble supports.” The previous version of this part was made using CNC-milled aluminum. “We printed the part without any changes to the shape and also integrated threads for inserts,” note Wampl. “We used an off-the-shelf chopped carbon fiber-filled PA filament for the outer shell and our continuous carbon fiber/PA filament for the inside.”
Stepper evaluated the part, determined it met the required accuracy, and then ordered our first machine, says Wampl. “They have been running it since July 2020 without any issues and tell us it still produces parts with this accuracy.”
Fig. 2. Repeatable accuracy for uncompromising quality
Stamping tool manufacturer Stepper, known for its high precision and quality, became the first Wizard 480+ customer after validating its ability to print a complex, multi-material spare part for one of its tools (lower right) to an accuracy of 0.02 millimeters. Stepper has continued finding new applications, including multiple 3D-printed composite parts comprising this camera module for a stamping tool. Photo Credit: Stepper, APS Tech Solutions
High quality is also a feature of the as-printed fiber-reinforced composites, as shown in the micrograph on p. XX. Featuring five layers of APS Tech Solutions’ 1K continuous carbon fiber-reinforced PEEK filament, the part was cut and micrographed right after printing, with no further consolidation or post-processing. The material was also tested at the FH Vorarlberg (University of Applied Science in Vorarlberg, Germany) and micrographed at the University of Bayreuth (Bayreuth, Germany). The results show a tensile strength of 1,060 megapascals and a bending strength of 750 megpascals. “However, this was very preliminary testing and we are now preparing more standardized testing, during which our technicians believe we will achieve even higher properties” says Wampl.
“Our sales, for now, are mainly to universities and companies like Stepper that aren’t satisfied with what is on the market,” says Wampl. “There are continuous fiber 3D printers with good technology, but most are restricted in materials or software. Our goal is to serve customers that need the highest quality of parts as well as flexibility, such as mechanical and specialty engineering companies, as well as those working in material science and development.”
The company continues to work on its own new developments, such as adapting its system for a six-axis robotic arm and materials for space applications. “We believe 3D-printed composites have a much wider application than has been seen so far, but we are expanding those horizons and enabling new possibilities for industrial parts.”
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