What is Large Format 3D Printing and Who Needs It?

Commercial-grade, large format 3D printing is here, and it stands to change the face of manufacturing. But how do we define large format 3D printing, where did it come from, and where is it headed?

What is Large Format 3D Printing?

Simply put, large format 3D printing is industrial-scale 3D printing of objects that were traditionally molded or machined. Think of printing a life-size mannequin, a larger-than-life Coke bottle for an advertisement, the complete bumper of a car, or even an airplane wing.

Large format 3D printing is not only a cost-effective alternative to machining – it can also produce complex geometries that would normally require multiple parts and assembly. This both lowers production time and expense for end products.

For manufacturers, large format 3D printing offers an excellent option for creating molds and tooling – lowering lead-times and costs compared to traditional manufacturing setup, as well as eliminating the restrictions associated with conventional design.

Started with a BAAM

Large format 3D printing originated in Oak Ridge National Labs, a US Department of Energy research facility. And they still lead the way in terms of sheer size: the current version of the Big Area Additive Machine (BAAM) can deposit over 36 kilos of material an hour, printing parts up to 13 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 8 feet tall.

The first version of BAAM was launched in 2014, as part of a joint venture with the City of Cincinnati. The latest model was most notably used to print an entire 3D-printed car in 2017, and includes two hoppers, dryers, and lines to the extruder to enable printing with different materials – especially useful, for example, to create objects with a different set of properties on the surface versus internally.

BAAM and similar machines are most commonly used to create large molds – for objects like airplane wings or the cladding with which hi-rise buildings are often faced. Traditionally, these products would have been created using enormous wood molds over which material is shaped or poured into. But these molds can take literally months to make. BAAM enables a mold to be created in days.

Commercial Adoption of Advanced Solutions

The newest generation of commercial large format 3D printing solutions, which have been already widely adopted in diverse industries, are not quite as big as BAAM – but they are far faster and more advanced.

The recently-launched Nexa3D NXE400 printer, for example, can continuously print up to 16 liters of part volume at speeds of up to 1Z centimeter per minute. This is, by way of comparison, six times the speed and 2.5 times the volume of any other comparable 3D printer on the market.

The Nexa3D printer can also use tough materials ideal for high-speed printing of functional prototypes, production tools and full-scale end-use parts and casting patterns. The printers come with cognitive software and integral sensors – optimizing manufacturing performance while offering detailed diagnostics and continuous monitoring.

The future of manufacturing is, in a very real sense, being printed today by existing and emerging large format 3D printers.

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