Thermoforming 3D Prints

20171113_Thermoform 3D Print

Sorry for the blogging silence, this is the longest break I’ve had since starting a number of years ago. Long story short I’ve made a big move recently for work and am only just starting to get back into printing and making new projects. If you follow my social media, you’ve probably noticed some new things starting!

One of the projects I’ve wanted to play with since previously building the InMoov robot arm is the Enabling the Future prosthetics (aka. e-NABLE). This week I 3D printed and built most of the Phoenix v2 hand, which of course is open source and free to download. A really inspiring company, and a vastly more simple design compared to the electronic InMoov! Some of the pieces, which I printed on an UP Mini 2 in ABS plastic, can be seen above. I’ll post full details once I get it up and running, just waiting on some elastics for the fingers. The gauntlet piece, which attaches to the users forearm, is printed in a flat position and then bent into a C shape afterwards. This is a really clever idea for providing the strongest functional part with optimal layer orientation. But how do you bend a 3D print?

Well the instructions from e-NABLE require dipping the piece in boiling water for a few seconds to make it pliable – if you 3D print in PLA, which has a lower melting temperature than ABS. Check out the video here. However ABS is not really going to be affected by boiling water, and just to make sure I did try this technique with my first print. It did get a bit of a bend, but mostly a snap!

For print #2 I instead found myself a strip heater in the workshop, which is perfect for heating a nice clean line and normally used to bend acrylic sheets. A few seconds on each side of the print and it bent perfectly without de-lamination or splitting, and was easy to re-heat to make small adjustments to fit with the hand print. This is a technique I’d never thought of using, but has really given me a lot of ideas for creating 3D prints which are post-processed like this into a stronger shape than if they were 3D printed in their final more complex form. I think some of the simple enclosures I’ve made in the past could be much stronger if considered more like a sheet-metal part, although then this begs the question why not just laser cut the design? Well in the case of this e-NABLE prosthetic, there are some 3D details for snapping in other pieces, which could not be done using a 2D process like laser cutting. This would be important to consider if using this process with 3D printing, but it’s certainly an interesting technique worth further experimentation.

If you’ve done something like this yourself, or have ideas for thermoforming a 3D print, leave me a comment.

– Posted by James Novak

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