The research team have developed the first demonstration of 3D printing of composite materials. Image courtesy Matt Sutton, Tom Llewellyn-Jones and Bruce Drinkwater.
The research team have developed the first demonstration of 3D printing of composite materials. Image courtesy Matt Sutton, Tom Llewellyn-Jones and Bruce Drinkwater.

A team of engineers at the University of Bristol has developed a new type of 3D printing that can print composite materials.

According to the study, published in Smart Materials and Structures, the team has demonstrated a method by which ultrasonic waves are used to carefully position millions of tiny reinforcement fibers as part of the 3D printing process.  The fibres are formed into a microscopic reinforcement framework that gives the material strength. This microstructure is then set in place using a focused laser beam, which locally cures the epoxy resin and then prints the object.

‘We have demonstrated that our ultrasonic system can be added cheaply to an off-the-shelf 3D printer, which then turns it into a composite printer,’ said Tom Llewellyn-Jones, a PhD student in advanced composites who developed the system.

In the study, a print speed of 20mm/s was achieved, which is similar to conventional additive layer techniques. The researchers have now shown the ability to assemble a plane of fibers into a reinforcement framework. The precise orientation of the fibers can be controlled by switching the ultrasonic standing wave pattern mid-print.

To achieve this, the research team mounted a switchable, focused laser module on the carriage of a standard three-axis 3D printing stage, above the new ultrasonic alignment apparatus.

New generation

This approach allows the realisation of complex fibrous architectures within a 3D printed object. The versatile nature of the ultrasonic manipulation technique also enables a wide range of particle materials, shapes and sizes to be assembled, leading to the creation of a new generation of fibrous reinforced composites that can be 3D printed, according to the team of engineers.

‘Our work has shown the first example of 3D printing with real-time control over the distribution of an internal microstructure and it demonstrates the potential to produce rapid prototypes with complex microstructural arrangements,’ noted Bruce Drinkwater, Professor of Ultrasonics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. ‘This orientation control gives us the ability to produce printed parts with tailored material properties, all without compromising the printing.’

‘As well as offering reinforcement and improved strength, our method will be useful for a range of smart materials applications, such as printing resin-filled capsules for self-healing materials or piezoelectric particles for energy harvesting,’ added Dr Richard Trask, Reader in Multifunctional Materials in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

This story uses material from the University of Bristolwith editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.