Step inside a 3D-printing research centre manufacturing the future

15 Nov 2018

All images: Connor McKenna

Sylvia Leatham takes us on a guided tour of I-Form, with exclusive images captured inside the advanced manufacturing research centre.

I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing, is shaping the future of manufacturing through high-impact, award-winning research into the application of digital technologies to materials processing.

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland, I-Form works with industry to advance the low-cost, low-risk design of new products, and the manufacture of high-value components exhibiting enhanced material performance, while reducing processing times and achieving enhanced process reliability. I-Form is actively engaged across a range of different materials processing technologies, with a particular focus on additive manufacturing (3D printing).

I-Form brings together a nationwide pool of expertise in materials science, engineering, data analytics and cognitive computing. I-Form is applying exciting developments in digital technologies to materials processing, to improve understanding, modelling and control, thus increasing the competitiveness of Irish manufacturing on the world stage.

I-Form is funded through the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres Programme and co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund. It is a partnership between University College Dublin, Dublin City University, Trinity College Dublin, Institute of Technology Sligo, the National University of Ireland Galway, Waterford Institute of Technology and Maynooth University, along with strong collaborative industry engagement in sectors that include medical devices, aerospace, automobile and micro-electronic components.

A large grey brick building with a glass-panelled entrance on the UCD campus.

I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing, is headquartered at University College Dublin, with the main lab located in the basement of the Engineering Building. I-Form is a partnership between seven third-level institutes across Ireland, working closely with industry.

A three-dimensional I-Form sign with a scientist working at a standing computer in the background.

I-Form is applying digital technologies such as 3D printing and data analytics to materials processing, with the aim of changing how things are made. The Irish economy is manufacturing-based: 4,000 manufacturing companies employ 450,000 people (directly and indirectly). Advanced manufacturing research and development is essential if Ireland wants to remain globally competitive.

Looking inside a three-sided 3D printer through clear panels as it prints a plastic object.

The seven-foot tall WASP printer is ideal for printing large prototypes. The WASP can 3D print materials ranging from PLA and ABS (plastics) to nylon and carbon fibre filaments. 3D printing (or additive manufacturing, as it’s known in industry) is a process whereby an object is designed in three dimensions, saved in a digital file and then built by a machine that ‘prints’ layer upon layer of material.

Wide view of two scientists working at a bench with a 3D printer and laptop, surrounded by colourful printed objects.

3D printing opens up creative possibilities in design that are not possible using traditional manufacturing methods. The ability to create complex geometrical shapes is the unique selling point of additive manufacturing. The medical device industry is one area where the production of complex, bespoke shapes is of paramount importance.

A close-up of a 3D print being constructed layer by layer by extruding the filament from a precise point.

One area of I-Form research explores 3D printing with high-strength, lightweight carbon fibre. The use of this material could have far-reaching implications for the aerospace and automotive industries where weight is a crucial impacting factor on fuel economy.

A scientist in lab coat and safety glasses operates the Anycubic 13 Mega 3D printer at a bench.

I-Form researchers are investigating the potential application of 3D printing to the production of surfboard fins, with the aim of making them more lightweight and hydrodynamic. Testing of material properties such as strength and flexibility is a core part of the research centre’s focus.

Overhead view of an orange robotic arm printing onto a surface held by a scientist in lab coat and safety glasses.

Regular 3D printers print on three axes (X, Y and Z), whereas the Kuka industrial robot allows for greater design freedom through its six-axis rotational movement. The I-Form research team is investigating the possibilities for printing bespoke carbon parts, from turbine blades to prosthetics.

Three-dimensional I-Form logo behind a FormLabs 3D printer and a 3D-printed object.

Unlike regular 3D printers, which extrude heated material to build a part, SLA (stereolithography apparatus) printers use a laser to turn resin into complex parts, resulting in extremely fine detail. SLA printers are prevalent in the medical device and dental industries, where there is a strong trend toward customisation and personalisation of products for patients.

Split-screen of a scientist operating a large machine and inside the machine is a clear cylindrical container of material undergoing treatment.

Exploring and testing the strength of materials used in manufacturing is a key research focus for I-Form. This machine uses advanced plasma technology to clean and prepare plastics before they are made into filament for printing. This process greatly increases the strength of the plastic and, consequently, of the printed part.

Split-screen of a large 3D printing machine and inside the machinery at work.

3D printing is now possible with many different kinds of material, from precious metals to ceramics. Irish company Mcor Technologies makes the world’s only full-colour paper-based 3D printer.

By Sylvia Leatham, with Andrew Dickson contributing

Sylvia Leatham is the communications and engagement manager at I-Form. Andrew Dickson is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin.