3D printing: sustainable, quick and helping in the fight against Covid-19
Chris joined the Department of MACE in 2007 when he began working as a technician in our mechanical workshop. Before this, Chris studied Aerospace Engineering at Macclesfield College and then undertook an apprenticeship in Mechanical Engineering. After working in our mechanical engineering lab, Chris moved to our CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) workshop where his main focus is overseeing our 3D printing.
We caught up with Chris to hear more about why 3D printing is so important, and about how he has been involved in making PPE for NHS workers during the Covid-19 crisis.
What is 3D printing and how does it work?
3D printing really falls into the more broad term of ‘additive manufacturing’ because in 3D printing you add to the material. It works by feeding a reel of plastic through the extruder which heats it up to 220 degrees. Then, using slicing software to set the size, shape, dimension etc. the printer then builds a 3D object layer by layer as each layer cools.
3D printing is a relatively new thing, and quickly became very popular- why is this?
One big advantage is that it’s quick. It is a good way of printing complex parts that you wouldn’t be able to produce quickly with other machinery. On a 3D printer you can produce prototypes of more complex items to test out before making the final version.
“Our 3D printing lab is the biggest in the University, so we are always busy!”
For example, if workshop wants an item made from metal, they can send details to 3D orienting lab to make prototype to make first as a test run. It is also cheap! It costs 12p per gram for plastics, which is much cheaper than steel or aluminium. So it’s very useful to be able to test things out in plastic first and make any necessary changes before making the final product.
Here in MACE we do quite a lot of work with Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) to 3D print prototype prosthetics. We have also worked with a dental surgeon to make prototypes for our dental students to practice on, as well as working with architects and the archaeology department here at the University. Our 3D printing lab is the biggest in the University, so we are always busy!
I heard that we are able to use recycled material in our 3D printing, can you tell us a bit more about that?
I went to a 3D printing exhibition in Birmingham with a colleague where we spoke to the owner of Filamentive, who are a company with a strong focus on using recycled materials. After our conversation, we set up recycling bins for different types of material in MACE and Filamentive collect the contents.
“The recycled material is just as good quality… and is much cheaper!”
They take it to factory where the material is ground down into small pellets which go into a heated extruder which turns them into molten plastic. It then comes out onto a reel ready for reuse in 3D printing! This is really useful, as many parts of 3D printing from student projects and prototypes come back to us, so we can recycle those bits too, to be turned back into reel for the 3D printers.
This is great as it is not only much more environmentally sustainable, as the PLA is recycled and comes on a recyclable cardboard reel too, it is also much cheaper than purchasing non-recycled material, so it’s better financially as well! The recycled material is just as good quality, and the material was approved by the NHS for use in hospitals.
“We are able to print about 500 headbands for PPE visors every week… all of which are donated to Salford Royal Hospital”
What is going on in the lab at the moment?
Currently we are busy using our labs to 3D print headbands for PPE visors for NHS workers to use during the Covid-19 outbreak. Each piece costs us £1.50 in material and takes 1.5 hours to print. We have set up the lab so that we can make 8 at a time per machine.
This allows to produce approximately 100 headbands per day. We are collaborating with colleagues in other departments at the University, such as Electrical and Electronic Engineering, who have offered us use of their 3D printers as well. Between our MACE and Morton labs we are able to produce about 500 a week. We are donating all the headbands to Salford Royal Hospital.
“It is great that colleagues across many departments have been able to work together to contribute to the fight against Covid-19”
The designs for the headbands were provided by Prof Brian Derby from the Department of Materials and we were ready to respond as soon as we could. As soon as we had the designs, we put them onto our software and began printing within 5 minutes!
I am particularly grateful to CNC technician Alex Williams who has been a big help in the lab with me. Alex doesn’t usually do 3D printing but he offered to help out at this time, which is great. Our line manager Stuart has been really supportive as well. We are proud that the MACE 3D print lab is helping to contribute to the fight against Covid-19. It has been brilliant that colleagues in other departments have been able to collaborate in order to maximise our output and make the biggest difference we can.
Want to meet more MACE staff, students and alumni? Check out the ‘Meet MACE’ section of the blog.