3D printing with limitless design


Manufacturers’ Monthly speaks with CNC Design about its additive manufacturing capabilities of large parts for different manufacturing sectors.

CNC Design has more recently extended into additive manufacturing through VSF, a solution for 3D manufacturing of large parts for different industries such as construction, aerospace, marine and mining. It is a fit for many industries that are producing very large components.

John Croft, development manager additive technologies for CNC Design, remembers his first encounter with additive manufacturing in 1991. Watching the FDM machine print a plastic part at Swinburne University of Technology, he immediately remarked, “Do you realise this is the future of manufacturing?” He recalled saying the technology wouldn’t be restricted to just polymers.

“The FDM printer had a 250-cube build area, which was huge at the time,” Croft said. “A lot of industry weren’t ready for the capabilities of the machine and said it was too expensive. Companies held the belief it was still somewhat of a black art and wouldn’t take off, but now additive manufacturing is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Industry is starting to gather momentum around what additive can do in the manufacturing process, but Australia is still 10 to 15 years behind much of the world.”

Almost three decades later, Croft continues to develop the craft through his work at CNC Design, a motion control solutions expert company specialising in Virtual Smart Factory (VSF) and CNC machines. Founded by managing director Bruce Rowley, CNC Design began as a CNC retrofit company, specifically around machine tools. Bringing something new to the Australian market, the company became the distributor in Australia and South East Asia for Siemens machine tool products, which remains an integral part of the business.

The Virtual Smart Factory (VSF) gantry-based systems are among the largest 3D printers in the world and can combine additive and 5-axis machining in a single machine. CNC Design started the research and development project for these machines in 2017, prompted by the requirements of a specific wax printing project in the UK.

“It was seen by CNC Design as an emerging technology and an emerging market,” Croft explained. “There were a lot of players for small printers for plastics and metals, so we decided to move into larger-scale printing, beginning with wax and then developing the printer technology for concrete and thermoplastics.”

Today, VSF can print large components made of concrete as well as thermoplastic composites. An example of CNC Design’s 3D printers capability is used in aerospace applications including the manufacture of vacuum molds using high-temperature thermoplastics (PEEK) combined with carbon fibre while considerably reducing tooling costs.

CNC Design is supplying the largest composite printer to Queensland manufacturer Zone RV.

VSF Composite

VSF Composite uses a screw driven extrusion based system that can print with a wide range of thermoplastics including ABS, PC, HDPE, PEEK and composites reinforced with Carbon Fibre or Glass Fibre. CNC Design is supplying the largest composite printer to Queensland manufacturer Zone RV what will be the largest 3D printing system in the Southern Hemisphere. The 22 by 5 by 1.6 metre will begin machining up the molds for the Coolum Beach based company’s range of off-road caravans that combine lightweight composite bodies with class-leading components.

“They’re using the large extruder system which has a capacity to extrude up to 200 kilos per hour,” Croft remarks. “Because of the weight, it will be a two-beam gantry system so the machining system is on a separate beam. It is capable of both 3D printing and machining.”

The Large Area Gantry system is able to combine five-axis milling and three-axis printing in a single machine. Three-axis 3D printing is performed using a CNC Design Model 60-150 print head, featuring a vacuum pellet drying and conveying system, enabling printing rates of up 200 kg an hour with the larger extruder unit. The range of CNC Designs extruder units range from 19kg per hour with the next unit extruding up to 40kg per hour. The system also has the flexibility of five-axis machining, orbital sanding and spraying, with a tool rack and print head calibration unit built in.

VSF Concrete

Concrete printing has been growing globally over the past decade and CNC continues to flourish in this area. Two recent customers utilising the VSF Concrete printers as high performance gantry systems, ideal for additive manufacture of prefabricated building modules and architectural parts.

One being Siam Cement Group (SCG) is one of the largest cement companies in Southeast Asia. In late 2020, SCG 3D printed a 102 square metre research and development centre in Thailand using CNC Design’s VSF onsite printer.

The printer is designed to be easily relocatable while retaining high speed and precision for printing, which allowed SCG to print an intricate textured wall surface. Using conventional methods would have required complex moulds and formwork to make this design.

“The construction of the wall took around two days with five operators, which saved time and labour. The actual printing took two days to print with an accuracy better than five millimetres,” Croft said.

CNC Design furthered these kinds of services in Southeast Asia when more recently the second customer being Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) approached the company after the precast production processes were causing time delays and requiring more workers. The Virtual Smart Factory (VSF) solution was applied to machining, handling, and additive manufacturing, not only for concrete but also for wax, foam, and high-temperature plastics. As a result, Singapore HDB was able to 3D print unique concrete elements up to 9m long, 3.5m wide, and 3.8m tall.

Virtual Smart Factory composite 3D printer.

Virtual Smart Factory (VSF) Range

“Thermoplastic will take prior position and next will be the concrete,” he said. “Those are our two big focus areas currently, the motivation from our customers is to unlock more sustainable building practices. One of our biggest challenges globally is the waste caused by construction – 83 per cent of the world’s waste comes through construction also 27 per cent of Co2 emissions. More sustainable building is a big plus for the future.”

CNC Design see themselves as the perfect partner for industries moving into these new technologies.

“The beauty of the flexible VSF design is they can be unlimited and we want to tap into new forms and design with different clients,” he said. “We will look into intricate designs where our VSF technology will play a major role.

CNC Design engineers supplies the Virtual Smart Factory (VSF) printer and the thermoplastic printing materials here in Australia.

CNC Design continues to field interest for this thermoplastic technology, and Croft expects the company’s main growth area to be in this field in the short term. The other major factor that is holding back the growth of the AM industry is the skills as we need to concentrate on education to increase these skill sets enabling the growth of both AM and our manufacturing industry.

With continued growth in sight for CNC Design, Croft explained that customer education is crucial moving forward.

“We are trying to raise awareness in AM to Australian Industry,” he said. “This technology is actually happening and is available with full support and service happening here in Australia.”

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