Vapour smoothing of 3D-printed parts

Protolabs has announced a major breakthrough with the launch of vapour smoothing for 3D-printed parts. This automated post-processing technology is a significant advancement for additive manufacturing because it further enhances a plastic component’s surface finish on even the most complex geometries. Vapour smoothing is currently available for the commonly used PA-12 nylon material, plus TPU-01 elastic material.

Andrea Landoni, Protolabs EMEA’s 3D printing product manager, says: “Although 3D printing allows an engineer to design and produce complex parts and is ideal for low production runs when compared with injection moulding, the surface finish of the latter is far smoother. Now, using vapour smoothing, we can bridge that gap for additive manufactured parts, smoothing and sealing even the smallest cavities on the surface. This allows components in these materials to be used for a wider range of applications that demand a very fine smooth finish for aesthetic and functional reasons.”

The process also improves a part’s mechanical properties with increased elongation at break and impact strength, while the sealed and smoother surfaces are water/airtight and easier to clean.

“As the finishing process is automated, it can be used for far more geometries than a manual smoothing process, which can be limited due to reaching difficult to access areas,” says Landoni. “This means that you can have all the advantages of additive manufacturing and achieve a component surface finish that is comparable to injection moulding.”

Following production of the parts using selective laser sintering (SLS) or Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), the team at Protolabs transfers the components into a smoothing chamber which heats them and introduces a finishing agent. Under carefully controlled conditions, this agent evaporates and the vapour spreads across all surfaces of the part. This causes them to melt, liquefy and redistribute material to even out any peaks and troughs.

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