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Protolab can now produce 3D metal prints with perfect surfaces thanks to a new polishing machine

Protolab can now produce 3D metal prints with perfect surfaces thanks to a new polishing machine
Using additive technologies, they can custom-make a protective half-mask, missing component parts, dentures or a scooter frame. This year, however, the experts at the Protolab 3D Printing Centre at the Department of Machining, Assembly and Engineering Metrology at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at VSB-TUO decided to overcome another challenge - to significantly improve the surface properties of metal prints.

A new electrolytic polisher, the first of its kind in the country, will help them to do this.

"While conventional electrolytic polishers use a liquid electrolyte in which the product is immersed, our device uses small beads. They bump into each other under tension, releasing the liquid electrolyte, which reaches a specific spot on the print surface. This makes polishing more efficient, more precise and possible even in hard-to-reach areas. This means, for example, that under certain conditions, internal surfaces, rough surfaces, and so on are also possible. In addition, there is almost no material loss, i.e. no waste is generated, the surface is completely homogeneous and has no effect on the crystalline structure," said Jiří Hajnyš, Head of the Protolab 3D Printing Centre, about the new equipment, which costs around €18,000.

This new equipment will serve experts in both research and in the production of products for commercial clients. Since the Protolab 3D Printing Centre is the first in the Czech Republic to own this technology, scientists will be able to study it further. "We will investigate the polishing duration and the amount of tension, two crucial factors that influence the polishing result. We have already prepared a bachelor's thesis, the aim of which is to find out what the relationship is between these two variables. Although we have the parameters for operation supplied by the manufacturer, we want to see if they could be improved," Hajnyš added.

The staff at Protolab's 3D Printing Centre also hope to provide better customer service. Reducing the roughness parameter, which is significantly higher after printing compared to machining, for example, is one of their main requirements. Until now, the plastering machine has been used for this purpose, but due to the mechanical action, it causes a material loss of up to 0.3 millimetres and is not effective for internal surface finishing. "These disadvantages can now be eliminated.  In negotiations with commercial partners, we will be able to give the good news that this polishing process does not result in material loss or unwanted edge rounding. The polishing process follows the exact shape of the print and polishes it not mechanically but by chemical reaction. We will be able to deliver products with a perfect surface, and the customer will also get increased corrosion resistance and a lasting surface shine," said Hajnyš.

The equipment is designed for selected metal materials, especially the most commonly used stainless steels, i.e. aluminium alloys, high-strength steels or heat-resistant steels. These materials are mainly used to produce machine parts, but also prints for the automotive and medical industries. 3D printing is used for research and custom prototype production. "You can say that every piece is an original. The potential of 3D printing lies, for example, in the lightweighting of various components, we are able to produce products that cannot be made with other technologies. Thanks to the 3D scanner, we are also able to reverse engineer and, for example, remodel missing parts, which we then print. Another advantage is the individual customisation of the product according to the customer's or user's requirements," said Hajnyš.

The Protolab 3D Printing Centre was established in 2017 and focuses on professional industrial 3D printing. Currently, it is one of the largest 3D printing centres in Central Europe. It offers 3D printing and design services to small and medium-sized companies in the Moravian-Silesian Region and beyond. Cooperation takes place in all areas of industry, including healthcare. The workplace has several professional 3D printers, which are designed primarily for printing polymers, metals and composite materials. There is also the possibility of 3D scanning using a handheld laser scanner. Protolab also offers a reverse engineering service, creating digitised models based on physical objects. Last but not least, the centre deals with 3D modelling and optimisation using advanced CAD tools. In cooperation with the Department of Machining, Assembly and Engineering Metrology, it is also possible to use machine tools to modify printed products. Protolab staff regularly participate in interesting projects, conferences, workshops and publish professional articles in prestigious journals. The Protolab team also regularly organises popularisation lectures on 3D printing for primary and secondary schools. Since last year, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering has managed to accredit a new specialisation - Additive Technologies, which is available as a Bachelor's degree and is currently preparing accreditation for the Master's programme.

Author: Martina Šaradínová, PR Specialist for R&D
Photo: Protolab

Created: 28. 3. 2023
Category:  News
Department: 9320 - Science and Research Management and the PhD Academy