For many engineers, dreaming up experiments or crafting a good hypothesis isn't the difficult part of the job. The biggest struggle comes in setting up complex machinery in order to test the hypothesis. Research labs have to invest thousands of dollars and months of labor just to prepare for the experiment. Sometimes entirely new devices have to be made just for the sake of science.
One company wants to make fabrication a streamlined process by electroplating 3D printed parts. Formlabs combines electroplating and 3D manufacturing to cut costs and cut wait times so that researchers can conduct experiments faster.
Andreas Osterwalder spearheads Formlabs and is the man behind the innovations. He wanted to further his research in "cold chemistry" -- how molecules interact with one another near absolute zero temperatures. The best way to try out the 3D printing/electroplating process was on his own experiment. Osterwalder created a 3D printed and electroplated beam splitter which allowed him to control the motion of the molecules.
"You can imagine a jet of water: the molecule beam is inside a vacuum and in this condition we can start controlling the direction in which the jet is steered," said Osterwalder.
Moritz Walter, Integration Engineer at the Formlabs EU base, gave Interesting Engineering an exclusive interview to further explain how the process works.
"...In a first step, Mr. Osterwalder prints a precise model of the desired electrode on a Form 2 3D printer," Walter said. "Afterwards, the model is coated with nickel and gold to achieve the necessary surface conductivity. In total, the process takes about 48 hours from design to finished electrode, at a fraction of the cost."
Manufacturing the beam splitter wasn't the only success. Osterwalder could split a stream of gas-phase molecules in two without touching the molecules. The metal structure can conduct up to 10,000 volts to generate a force on the molecules. In short, Osterwalder got effective results in just days compared to similar technology that traditionally takes months to produce.
Electroplating metals -- plating one metal to another via hydrolysis -- isn't an easy task. However, electroplating plastics is considerably more challenging as the plastics generally don't conduct electricity. Walter explained how the team overcame its biggest hurdle.
"The process does require a conductive base material though, the first step to metalize a 3D printed plastic part is, therefore, to coat it evenly with using a conductive spray," he told Interesting Engineering. "Silver sprays, in particular, deliver great results for both bath and brush plating techniques. The next step is to electroplate a base layer of copper onto the part. Copper deposits quickly and adheres well to the silver spray without flaking off, providing a solid ground for further plating. After a copper base layer of about 50µm thickness has been plated onto the part, one can proceed with plating nickel, silver, gold and many other metals onto the part."
The team also turned to Swiss company Galvotec for assistance, particularly in partially coating some of the pieces. By perfecting this process, Formlabs noted that the technique can expand how researchers use traditional electroplating.
For Walter, the goals of the team go beyond electroplating.
"We’re excited to see the ingenuity of our users bringing forth new applications of 3D printing. Of course Formlabs also actively engages in the research that explores what’s possible in additive manufacturing, be it in digital implantology, vulcanized rubber molding or optics."
Interview conducted by I.E.'s Kathleen Villaluz