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Just Hit Print for Precision-made Parts from One to 1,000

3D Printing

Rebecca Carnes
Design-2-Part Magazine

At a recent Design-2-Part trade show, there was an excited buzz from attendees surrounding a model of a P-38 Lightning airplane with an impressive five-foot wing span that was made of nearly 40 lbs. of steel grey plastic, acrylic, and other materials. That's the power of 3D printing.

"People are blown away," said Mike Littrell, president of Cideas, which made the model and displays it at trade shows for attendees, who invariably say they can't believe it was 3D printed. People are immediately drawn to the airplane model and it typically stands at the center of his trade show booth because it embodies the same strengths Littrell strives for with his company—precision, speed, and versatility. With nearly 500 hours of computer-aided design (CAD), no detail was missed, including the gauges and switches throughout the cockpit. The "Tribute to a Rare Bird," as it was dubbed, exemplifies the outside-the-box thinking that goes beyond cell phone housings and chess pieces to show what the Fused Deposition Modeling® (FDM®) and PolyJetTM processes can do, Littrell said.

However, Cideas is one of very few 3D printing bureaus that maintain all four major processes—FDM, PolyJet, SLA®, and SLS®—under one roof, Littrell said. With more than 22 machines, the company offers a tremendous amount of capacity, which translates to shorter lead times.

"That's one of the biggest favorable points to 3D printing," he said. "If you were to compare it to traditional CNC machining or compare it to injection molding or thermoforming or any other manufacturing process that exists, with 3D printing, we can build and produce parts in 24 hours or less. And that's very appealing to engineers because time is money. One thing that makes us pretty unique is that we're very customer-service oriented. And because of our large capacity, most jobs that we receive orders for get started the same day the order is placed. So our lead times and our throughput are probably typically better than most of our competitors. A lot of that is a direct result of having such a great amount of capacity."

Opening the Door to 3D

Reaching out to engineers and educating them as to the many possibilities 3D printing offers is a big part of what Littrell does at these trade shows and with customers. With three project managers on staff with more than 60 years of combined industry knowledge, Cideas recommends materials and processes to best suit the project's needs in the least expensive way, Littrell said.

"There's no voodoo to what we do," he said. "But what happens is there are so many material and process choices out there for an engineer that even the most seasoned engineers won't necessarily know the correct process or material for their project."

And as a 3D printing bureau that started 15 years ago, Cideas has time and expertise on its side. Cideas, located in Crystal Lake, Ill., an hour northwest of Chicago, serves an array of industries and caters to customers ranging from hobbyists with a $10 order up to projects in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. "There's no rhyme or reason to our customer base," Littrell said. "We cater to anybody who creates a tangible product. We really don't have a target market; it's anybody who wants a model. It could be used for design verification, an actual production model, display, or scale model to show off a product that might be extremely large."

As an example, Littrell pointed to one customer that designs and produces water towers for municipalities. Their towers have a unique way of keeping the water from getting stagnated. Cideas builds a model of the town's water tower less than two feet tall and paints all the individual components different colors so that the company can use it as a sales tool when they try to sell their unique towers to cities. "They can point out all these different features that their water tower has that maybe the other water tower company doesn't. And then when they're done and they finish building these multi-million dollar towers, they present the city with the model that we produced for them," Littrell said.

Cideas also works with hobbyists producing one-of-a-kind models for projects involving items like train sets and Legos, and Littrell said that the company is one of the more unique service bureaus in that they don't have any price minimums and frequently build models for $10. There are many instances with customers where one part is all that is needed, but Littrell also offers additive manufacturing services producing up to 1,000 parts. Additive manufacturing, he explained, is the catch phrase for when 3D printing is used to produce quantities that would be used for production parts.

"There's a misconception by the public that additive manufacturing is on the path to taking over traditional manufacturing, and it is not. It can enhance traditional manufacturing and it can enable people to produce a unique design that cannot be produced or injection molded in the traditional way because of the complexity," he said.

And with additive manufacturing, parts can be customized so that when the same part is produced again, whether it's for the second time or hundredth time, it can be adjusted and changed. This would not be possible with traditional manufacturing because a hard tool has to be created, which is very expensive and makes sense if somebody is producing in the millions. But Littrell can custom make something like matchboxes in lots of 50, 100, or 1,000 using additive manufacturing. And just this summer, Littrell added a new delivery service option where instead of shipping a part or parts to a customer, his company will deliver it by car within a 120 mile radius. "Speed is a lot of what drives people to this technology," he said. "Things that would traditionally be CNC machined can take weeks based on lead times. But here, someone can have something printed and literally have it the next day or same day, for that matter."

The company also offers full in-house paint and finishing services from its state-of-the-art model shop. Most models that come out of the machine can be used by the customer right off the machine; however, some customers want production-looking parts, color-matched parts, or texturized parts. "Right off the machine, some of these 3D parts can be a little rough, where maybe the layer lines are visible," he said. "For many people, it doesn't matter because the model might be used as an internal component that is invisible. But in some cases where they're doing field trials or field studies, they want them to look like production parts, and that's when having a quality model shop is absolutely important."

FDM and Beyond

According to Littrell, Cideas is the largest independently-owned FDM bureau in the country. The company participates in software and hardware development beta testing with FDM machine manufacturers while also developing its own consumables to be used in the FDM process. "We started to develop our own consumables to help better the availability for improved thermoplastics for the FDM process, so right now, our ABS plastic that we produce in house is 15 percent stronger than the manufacturer's," he said.

Cideas has more than 17 FDM machines, making FDM its primary in-house 3D prototyping and 3D printing process. Fused Deposition Modeling is an extrusion-based 3D modeling process that utilizes actual thermoplastics, such as ABS, UltemTM 9085, Polycarbonate, and ABS/PC blends. Well suited for fit, function, and conceptual models that require durability, excellent thermal properties, and RF friendly characteristics, FDM is also an excellent additive process for manufacturing multiple parts in a production-grade thermoplastic. Cideas' FDM parts can be produced in one of three resolutions: standard 0.010-inch layer slice (default); high-res 0.007-inch layer slice; or high speed 0.013-inch layer slice (typically used for extremely large volume parts.) "The FDM process is a linear process and it can be slow on larger parts, so we can actually go to a lower resolution in order to speed the build time for larger assemblies," Littrell explained. "If it's a small, intricate part, we can go to a high-res mode in order to capture the fine details under 20 thousandths of an inch."

Cideas suggested using the FDM process for a customer wanting models of different kitchen sinks to show their clients. The customer had used SLA rapid prototyping in the past with a previous vendor, but due to the size of the sinks, they were experiencing cracking and breakage when shipping. Cideas recommended increasing the nominal wall thickness to 0.080 inch and producing the parts in ABS with the FDM process to increase the durability during travel. Once produced, the sinks were fused with ABS glue and welded at the seams to ensure strength at the joints. The sinks were then skim coated, sanded, and painted to a near perfect stainless steel look. The customer then created counter tops to install the sinks and to use for presenting the multiple designs to clients. With the addition of handles and faucets, their customer was able to critique and view the designs as if they were looking at final production units.

Littrell brings one of the sinks to one of the many trade shows he attends each year. "People ask us why we have a sink in our booth, and we say we made it; that's what we do," he said, adding that people find it hard to believe it was 3D printed. "They're totally blown away because it looks like a real sink," he said, adding that it was pattern finished in silver. "For some reason, people have a hard time grasping that 3D printing can do really large things as well," he said, adding that Cideas recently built a full-size transmission for a bus company to mate up with their engine. Used as a mock-up model for the first tier suppliers to take dimensions from, it was built with a honeycomb interior so that instead of weighing the typical 400 to 600 lbs., it weighed 40 lbs. "It was just a mock-up model," Littrell said. "In fact, they liked it so much that they had us build a second one and they use that to bring to trade shows because it was so light and moveable."

Littrell has attended five trade shows so far this year, which is abnormally high for his company. "But the media frenzy around 3D printing has gotten so big," he explained. Littrell's booth was jam packed at a recent trade show, with attendees hovering around the many 3D printed models on display, including a new hot rod Model T at a quarter scale that was made using all four major processes to showcase their strengths. Engineers attending the trade shows are curious about the possibilities 3D printing offers, he said. "Some of the questions people have are what type of material is this? Is it durable? Can we use this in production? Can it be painted? Can it be glued to?" Littrell noted.

Interest in 3D printing is booming, Littrell said, and Cideas has quadrupled the size of its facility during the past two years. "There's not only more awareness to 3D printing, but we've got a good reputation and a solid guarantee of quality for our customers," he said. In the last three years, Cideas has added 12 new machines. Littrell attributes this growth to so many new markets opening up for 3D printing.

"In the past, it was limited to large companies with engineering departments," he said. "But as CAD software has become more available and less expensive, more people have now gotten the opportunity to utilize 3D printing. A perfect example is the guy who makes water towers. Why would he need 3D printing? Then all of a sudden he finds it would be an excellent sales tool. Rather than just handing them a picture of a water tower, now he can hand them a full, 3D printed model that's been painted to look like a real water tower. So what we're seeing are new markets opening up that didn't necessarily exist 15 years ago," he said, adding that areas are especially opening up in dental and with hearing aids.

And while Littrell said he stands by his prediction that additive manufacturing will never replace traditional manufacturing, the additive manufacturing demand is definitely growing. Cideas recently added three iPro8000s, a ProJet 7000, and two high definition, high-speed sPro60 SLS machines. "The resolution and small feature detail available from the HD/HS sPro 60 enables us to capture features and nominal wall thicknesses that were traditionally unavailable using the SLS process," Littrell said. With the recent addition of four large-frame 3D Systems machines, Cideas has reportedly become the first service bureau to offer Accura Xtreme White – 200 material in the large frame iPro 8000 SLA. Accura Xtreme has the durability of ABS while maintaining a surface finish similar to an injection-molded part.

Because the consumables for 3D printing are so expensive, additive manufacturing of production parts has been held back. So whereas a product the size of a baseball can be produced for $2 a piece using a traditional method, it might cost $50 a piece using additive manufacturing. But if only 50 parts or 1,000 parts are needed and the size of the part is small, additive manufacturing is an attractive option. "Price is what drives people," Littrell noted, adding that small enough parts in quantities of 50 to 1,000 can be 3D printed for about $5 a piece. "So now we're really close to what production numbers would be and we can turn the part around in three to four days versus a month," he said.

Cideas, which is in the process of revamping its website and transitioning to the moniker, has made components where they've customized each component with a different name, icon, or logo, or different whole sizes, but it's the same part throughout. "So we can take and build 50 of one, 200 of another, and 1,000 of another, and we can just stack them inside this SLS machine and just hit print and this machine just cranks out thousands of parts in a day," Littrell said. "That's a pretty impressive process, and from an additive manufacturing standpoint, I believe that is the process of the future for manufactured parts."

Fused Deposition Modeling and FDM are registered trademarks, and PolyJet is a trademark, of Stratasys Inc.

SLA and SLS are registered trademarks of 3D Systems Inc.

Ultem 9085 is a trademark of SABIC Innovative Plastics.

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