All too often companies looking to invest in 3D printing start looking at the 3D printers, trawling through endless specifications, and being barraged with jargon, trying to draw comparisons with existing subtractive technologies for comparison. But what if this is the wrong approach?

With material development expanding at a phenomenal rate, what you can produce using additive manufacturing now comes down to the properties and characteristics acquired through the source material, coupled with post-print processes.

“With most of our clients it is not a question of which 3D printer to buy, it is what material is most suitable, together with the size of the object,” says Lee Bilby, Chief Operations Officer of Bilby 3D. “From there the 3D printer correct for them is usually obvious.”

Australian polyurethane engineering expert Richmond Wheels and Castors (RWC) has been utilising milling and casting on their production line for 61 years. According to David Powell, Quality Assurance Manager at RWC: “Prior to adopting 3D printing we went through the process of going to seminars & training and got totally confused.”

RWC engaged in a consultation with Bilby 3D to explore possibilities. Was there a material that could make a mould capable of withstanding the pressure and curing temperature of a polyurethane casting?

Bilby 3D has been in 3D printing for more than a decade, and regards keeping up to date with material developments as of paramount importance. Bilby 3D’s team of engineers and researchers test products outside manufacturers’ intended applications to explore the potential for its clients across the country. It has also partnered with internationally leading 3D printing material scientists to manufacture custom materials for its clients that perform in just the way their applications need it to.

Bilby 3D researched the specific environmental conditions that RWC’s end product would be subject to, such as temperature and pressure. It then produced a mould for RWC identical to a 30cm diameter one that was being milled. It used Proto-Pasta High Temp PLA, post-cured through annealing over 11 hrs at a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius. The team at RWC then used the mould to cast a polyurethane wheel – reportedly the first polyurethane cast from a 3D printed mould.

“We have a lot of internal learnings around trying to change our mindset built on 30 years of conventional machining and part manufacture,” added Powell. “There is new thinking required when adopting to this type of manufacturing process.”

Cost considerations are a key benefit of 3D printing when compared to traditional milling. Moulds created using 3D printing, like the one Bilby 3D made for RWC, would normally take similar manufacturing times using milling. However, 3D printed parts can have significant material and labour cost saving; 3D Printers have a smaller footprint, and are quieter and cheaper. Therefore it’s possible to manufacture more in a smaller space at a lower investment cost compared with milling. Once a 3D print job is set up, it is repeatable, with low labour costs, and the raw materials tend to be much cheaper and are starting to provide real-world solutions in unexpected applications.