Metals have been used for all sorts of products given their impressive physical properties and the ability to add mass to certain applications. They offer dimensional accuracy, heat resistance, electrical conductivity and mechanical strength in addition to providing durability and quality. With that said, we are also witnessing a greater push among several industries, in particular automotive, to move away from metal products when and where possible. For automotive, there is a constant pressure towards lighter in an effort to improve fuel mileage standards. Moreover, for complex part geometries, or for anything beyond standard stock shapes, the need for secondary machining and operations can be quite costly. As a result, we are seeing more and more demand for heavy plastics to replace metal parts. 3D printing technologies have really catalysed this push as they help eliminate the need for tooling and allow for cost-effective prototyping.

Why Heavy Plastics?

3D Printing and the development of engineered thermoplastics are helping manufacturers replace metals with heavy plastics in a wide range of industry. Apart from being a high-performance option, thermoplastic composite materials also tend to offer longer lasting solutions and a higher quality when compared to metals. Perhaps most importantly, they utilize an incredibly efficient production process: injection molding, which allows for high volume production while eliminating the need for secondary operations.Additionally, the technology behind these heavy plastics is constantly improving and with new flame retardant, impact modified, or UV stabilized grades, the potential applications for these materials is constantly growing.

A Case Study: The Volvo Truck Engine

The first thing that needed in Volvo truck engines is efficiency and toughness.By using thermoplastic composite materials in as many as 30 tool applications, Volvo trucks have managed to reduce tool turn around times by as much as 94%. According to reports from Lyon, the facility has reduced the design and manufacture time from 36 days to a mere 2 days ever since it switched from traditional manufacturing methods that used metal. This has worked wonders in improving the efficiency and flexibility of the plant, allowing it to reduce costs and meet delivery times. In fact, some reports also suggest that in cases where small quantities of tools are needed, 3D printed thermoplastics cost as little as $1.13 / 0.6 cubic inches compared to $113, the cost of producing the same item using metal.

According to Pierre Jenny, the manufacturing director at the engine production facility, 3D printed thermoplastics have made it possible to produce an unlimited range of tools within a very short period of time and this directly relates to an improved production workf low. Some of the production tools that have already seen the introduction of thermoplastic composite materials include jigs, tool holders, light weight clamps and supports. Jean-Marc Robin, the technical manager at Volvo trucks, also confirmed that every piece of the 3D printed thermoplastic used by the company has proven to be “100% fit-for-purpose”. Robin also mentioned that the cost-effective, efficient and fast methods meant that the company was far less restricted than it was 6 months ago and that it was also enjoying the freedom to constantly improve processes.

What About Thermoplastics for My Own Applications?

Thermoplastic composite materials can be used in all kinds of applications. It makes the most of different types of filaments which are used for deposition modelling. The choice of filament determines the color, and it can also be made to look transparent or glow in the dark. Variations in the quality offers endless possibilities when it comes to 3D printed thermoplastics and countless ways to enhance the attractiveness of your product. In other words, thermoplastic composite materials and 3D printing technologies are surely making a foray into your industry with countless potential applications, if they haven’t already!