3D printing can be accomplished using single or multiple materials. The future of the process includes printing integrated circuits, optics, circuit pathways, heat sinks, fixture bodies and enclosures. Robotics, combined with 3D printing stations, can assemble entire products with no fasteners, no seams, and no human interaction, from a bin of raw materials.
The process involves setting up a series of 3D printers that feed into a main printer that is printing a body. At various stages, the printer is paused, and components are installed into cavities, before the printer continues. This can also include potting of cavities, as well as creating wiring vias and paths for conventional wires to pass through. The finished product would have no seams to leak, no intermediate gasketing to fail. It is an integrated assembly that used no glue or seaming of any type, making the final product durable.
This process can be repeated 24/7, with no staff present, other than to keep the material supplies loaded (also done with automation in the local area of the machine.) Customer orders can then move directly from order entry into the production que, with all available selectable options of color, optic, LED power level, CCT, control interface, etc… since the entire fixture is created from software to real world, with none of the conventional inventory of parts, components, etc… through to assembly operations.
A Simple Example to Illustrate the Process
The following is a design and process I created from raw fixture design to printed, in less than 24 hours.
To get started, 3D CAD is the root of the product and the process.
The next step is to include in the design the necessary cavities for the components to be inserted into it.
To facilitate the printing process, components with irregular shapes will need to be inserted into a sub-housing to allow the printer to print over a flat surface for the next layer. For this instance, I printed a housing for the driver and wiring, and another to hold the OLED panel in place, so the printer prints over the adapter, rather than directly onto the OLED itself – which has a recessed edge.
All of this is then processed to create the printer instructions, including a point in which is pauses to allow the printed components to be inserted. In this stage, internal supports that were automatically placed inside the cavity – to support the body being printed above – are removed using customization within the program.
Making it Happen
With the engineering and programming completed, the insert parts are printed first. Into these, the driver and the OLED panel are fitted and wired up, ready to be inserted.
With the parts printed and pre-assembled, it was time to start the print of the main body. The program for the printer includes a pause at the layer where the insert is to be installed and fitted.
The print process was then completed, which encapsulated all of the inserts and the OLED panel, creating a unified final product with no fasteners or seams. Once completed, the print was removed, the supports taken off, and the cord, dimmer, and switch were connected to the wiring and pushed into place.
This is a fixture created on a 3D printer, without seams or fasteners, and no tooling, in a sequence that could easily be automated. With the revision of controls being made to suit this process, as well as the additional use of 3D printing the electronics and wiring paths, this could easily be made in a fully automated environment.
The implications of being able to move from idea to realized in-hand part in 24 hours, are interesting. While adding fasteners may not have added a great deal of time or effort, the lack of fastening features means not having to make room for them in the design, or even think about them. Of course, one does need to think about the process of creating and placing inserts, so the gains are somewhat offset.
This is another reason that 3D printing is likely to revolutionize manufacturing in time. Without constraints of tooling, moving from design to realization in hours, and the ability to accommodate customization on the fly – the technology brings a lot to the table.
There are a couple of challenges in this specific example to overcome. First the surface finish is not ideal, and needs addressing if this were to be produced. Second, supports for the model have to be mechanically removed, as any process involving caustic solutions to dissolve them would infiltrate the fixture body and destroy the light source and contained electronics.
This was my first attempt at 3D printing a complete fixture with OLED integrated in this manner, so I am happy it came out without any significant kinks. I have identified a few technique improvements that I will apply going forward.