In the last ten years, massive additive manufacturing innovations have firmly planted digital manufacturing into the industry’s zeitgeist. However, today two of the most pressing challenges for the technology remain: How do you print something with plastic that goes beyond a prototype? How do you reliably print with high temperature or high-strength plastics?
Enter 3DXTech®, a well-known 3D printing filament supplier that has created a wide array of high-performance materials, including those made with carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes. As they brought those materials to market, 3DXTech found most existing FFF 3D printers lacking the capability to properly process them. In 2016, they decided to create their own answer to the “Which printer do you recommend” question – the Gearbox™ HT2. Gearbox machines are engineered from the ground up to ensure high-performance plastics (read: plastics that are way higher temperature or stronger than what you can print at home) will offer superior performance with highly repeatable quality.
3DXTech founders Matt Howlett and Gary Foote have spent over 65 years in the materials industry working on high-performance thermoplastics for injection molding, extrusion, and other processes, so they know a thing or two about the industry’s current state and where it’s headed. As Howlett puts it, “Our industrial customers want to be able to make functional parts…beyond just short-run production/prototyping and move into longer production runs. As we built out our portfolio, we saw a need in the market to move into more functional, industrial-grade materials. We quickly understood that there were very few open-source printers capable of processing these high-performance materials. That’s where the Gearbox3D product was born.”
Many of 3DXTech’s customers have already committed to manufacturing products using filament-based 3D printing. “We have many materials that are used in aerospace applications – including several that are used on launch vehicles and orbital platforms,” added Howlett.
While not all thermoplastic production processes will be replaced by additive manufacturing, the need for greater practical usage and functionality in the additive manufacturing process will bring further inroads as the industry continues to gain confidence in the materials and printers available to aid their development, prototyping, small-run production and beyond into mass production. Besides, you’ve probably noticed the avalanche of worldwide microbrands who sell niche products to smaller audiences. As these companies focus on their niche, production becomes a tricky balancing act of scaling manufacturing. These are precisely the kind of gaps 3DXTech and Gearbox3D can address.
Hardened components and precision engineering make Gearbox3D printers carbon fiber ready, with high-temperature nozzles that can reach 475C with a heated chamber rated as high as 230C internally. “When you want to print a high-temperature material that processes at 420C, you have to be able to create an environment conducive to properly processing that material,” says Howlett. This is especially true for high-performance semi-crystalline materials, where controlling crystallization during the process is critical to optimize material properties.” How do you address this situation? You build a 3D printer that can handle the materials by design, which is exactly what they have done with the Gearbox HT2.
As you can imagine, making a 3D printer is a complex process. You have hundreds of components, including delicate, sensitive electronics and multiple types of metals, thermoplastics, and other materials in the mechanical assemblies. The challenge of keeping the plastic at the perfect temperature and properly flowing through all of that can be daunting. The Gearbox team consists of over 20 engineers and technicians of all disciplines that generate a large amount of design, process, and test data. Managing all that data can be a pain, especially as various tests and validation for all the different machine parts are happening simultaneously.
So, where does Fusion 360 come into play? The Gearbox team needed software that could help with the full trifecta: dealing with high heat, nailing down the design, and handling collaboration. “Fusion 360 is very good at managing files,” Howlett explains. “Having everything in the cloud and not having to deal with a server that we had to manage ourselves allowed us to quickly prototype the parts and run through quick mock-ups when we started the project.” The importance of accessible data is becoming more and more important, especially during this year of remote working. Fusion 360’s cloud core means it doesn’t matter where in the world you are — everyone can still work together. “With Fusion 360, we were able to take an idea from mock-up to an actual assembly, make that assembly, and go straight to a drawing.”
An excellent mechanical assembly does not a 3D printer make. You need top-notch electrical/electronic systems to make all those mechanical parts operate. “We’re starting to get into the electrical side of Fusion 360 as well, and we intend to make all of our schematics through EAGLE.” EAGLE is now integrated with Fusion 360, so you can handle your part design and PCB design all in one place. “We also have some PCBs that we’re going to start digging into, but we’re still in the beginning process of that within Fusion 360.”
So what’s next for Gearbox3D? Well, the HT2 is available for order right now, and they’re already at work designing the next generation of additive manufacturing machines.
Whether you are 3D printing at home or in the office, Fusion 360 offers integrated CAD/CAM capabilities that will help you bring your product from drawing to finished 3D printed parts.