A revolutionary additive manufacturing device, with the capability to 3D print complex objects, made its Irish debut at an Athlone Institute of Technology industry showcase this week. Owned by Arburg, a German-owned machine manufacturing company, Freeformer is one of only two additive manufacturing machines in Ireland, the other of which is located at Queen’s University in Belfast and used exclusively for academic research.
Unlike other, more traditional methods of manufacturing plastic components, such as injection moulding, Freeformer doesn’t rely on costly tooling. Instead, using conventional granulate polymer material, the 3D printer can create prototypes quickly and cost-effectively, making it an attractive prospect for industry.
APT, a National Technology Gateway housed in Athlone Institute of Technology’s Materials Research Institute (MRI), hopes to make this €175k machine available to industry in the prototyping stage of research and development to ensure Irish enterprise stays at the forefront of technology and innovation.
Dr Noel Gately, the Centre Manager of APT, explains: “Our remit, as a Technology Gateway, is to provide solutions for the close-to-market needs of industry. For many companies, large capital investments in technology like Arburg’s Freeformer are out of the question, especially without knowing much about it or its full range of applications. That’s where we come in.
“It’s a lot easier for companies to approach material specialists like us, 3D print prototypes, evaluate their efficiency and then decide if the technology is worth investing in. This negates a lot of the financial risk and burden of innovation on industry and allows the customer to see, with quite a small investment, the value of this new cutting-edge equipment.”
He continued: “Traditionally, customers have outsourced prototype production to countries like China. If we can secure the funding to house Freeformer more permanently, customers will be able to come to us during the concept phase of product development and get their components created quickly and cheaply.
“The customer will have a much closer relationship with the design and manufacturing process because they are involved in every step of the journey. The net result is that actual production time will be halved and IP protected. Customers will also gain a greater understanding of the component properties and how the product will look and feel. This will ultimately determine its viability. Currently, industry doesn’t have access to this kind of facility here in Ireland.”.
While technology like Freeformer is largely in its infancy, Michael Jnr Hopkins, a senior research engineer at APT, believes it will have many useful applications in the MedTech sector. “With this additive manufacturing technology, we will be able to 3D print elements of the human anatomy like the cardiovascular and the urinary system for use in medical training contexts. We will be able to create a unique blend of soft material that mimics the human body.
“The customer or medical device company can then give the part to a surgeon for inspection. This is going to be a huge game changer. With this new technology, companies could design a medical device component and get it to market in half the time it currently takes,” he said.
Unlike other forms of 3D printing, Arburg’s Freeformer accepts material in granular form which means it can be modified to include active pharmaceutical ingredients for smart drug delivery. This new additive technology will enable APT to formulate bioresorbable implants that can dissolve in the body over a period of time. As the implant dissolves, it will deliver a controlled dose of a drug for targeted drug delivery. The ability to completely design and control processes in this manner is unique to the additive manufacturing technique.
According to Mr Hopkins, the proliferation of new technologies like Freeformer and their increased manufacturing capabilities is indicative of a transformational period in manufacturing globally. “We’re on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution led by advances in Smart Manufacturing. As it currently stands, Industry 4.0 is an intangible idea. People can’t quite grasp or comprehend how new manufacturing technologies, and the data captured and analysed from those technologies, is going to change our world.
“We’ve been at the forefront of research and development in the plastics space since our formation and understand the value of technologies like Freeformer in driving this smart manufacturing revolution forward,” he said.
APT is hoping to add Freeformer permanently to their suite of cutting-edge manufacturing equipment which includes a newly installed Arburg injection moulding machine. The Technology Gateway is currently exploring various different funding mechanisms to cover the cost of the Freeformer machine.
According to Mr Hopkins, acquiring Freeformer would be a massive boost for the Midlands Region and for Ireland as a Smart Manufacturing Hub internationally. “For years now, we’ve had an incredibly skilled workforce with the technical know-how to inspire new innovations in the polymer space. What we’ve lacked is the investment of state-of-the-art equipment like Freeformer,” he added.
While it’s important to note that Freeformer hasn’t been validated for production on a large scale yet, it will be key in the early prototype design phase where a company needs to iron out the kinks of the design process before going to largescale production.
Speaking of Freeformer’s Irish launch, Arburg Managing Director, Colin Tirel, said: “We are extremely excited to see the Irish market’s reaction to this revolutionary technology. Freeformer is very much aligned to the needs of industry, particularly the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. We are really grateful to everyone at AIT and the APT Gateway for their continued support in bringing this new technology to Irish industry.”
APT is a National Technology Gateway dedicated to polymer processing, testing and development with a provision of linking industry to research solutions. Funded by Enterprise Ireland in partnership with AIT, APT is a dedicated resource for the Irish polymer manufacturing industry and regularly provides training and information dissemination, as well as production demonstration days for companies.
Athlone Institute of Technology has been at the forefront of polymer technology and innovation since its inception in the 1970s. It is the third level of choice for budding polymer engineers as it is currently the only third level that offers an honours degree in the field. With the delegated authority to award at master and PhD level, the college is largely responsible for producing the bulk of polymer engineers in Ireland. For more information on AIT’s polymer engineering courses, click here