Additive Manufacturing technology has the potential to revolutionise industries that require filtration and separation solutions.
Additive Manufacturing technology has the potential to revolutionise industries that require filtration and separation solutions.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing or formally as rapid prototyping, has been in a process of development for more than 25 years. Neil Burns, director at Croft Filters and Croft Additive Manufacturing (CAM), looks at the developments in AM technology and its potential to revolutionise industries that require filtration and separation solutions.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing or formally as rapid prototyping, has been in a process of development for more than 25 years. Historically associated with plastics, the technology has been used to produce everything from cups and saucers to a facial reconstruction for the victim of a road accident. However, metal AM is becoming increasingly recognised, with recent advancements expanding the technology’s potential, from prototypes and small scale products, to develop increasingly complex metal components. Neil Burns, director at Croft Filters and Croft Additive Manufacturing (CAM), looks at the developments in AM technology and its potential to revolutionise industries that require filtration and separation solutions.

The past 12 months have seen AM attracting widespread media attention, hitting the headlines time and time again. The London Science Museum is currently running an eight month exhibition, 3D: Printing the Future, which brings the technology to the forefront of the consumer imagination and highlights its potential wider applications within industry. Supermarket chain, Asda, became the first UK retailer to introduce a 3D printing service in its stores, offering customers the opportunity to create a plastic miniature version of themselves, while fast food giant, McDonald’s, is considering using the technology to make its Happy Meal toys. Desktop 3D printers have also become available for consumer purchase, allowing objects including jewellery and household items to be printed from home.

It’s not all about consumer use in the comfort of your own home, however, and there is potential for metal AM to have a positive and revolutionary impact upon industries such as manufacturing and oil and gas. Businesses are now investing more heavily in AM, as they seek to utilise bespoke additively manufactured objects and reduce product development costs through prototyping. At Croft Additive Manufacturing (CAM), we recently became the first company to be invited to join the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) CERN Business Incubation Centre, which aims to bridge the gap between science and industry, and drive UK commerce. We were selected because of our application of innovative technology and commitment to developing this, highlighting an increased focus on the potential of metal AM within industry in the UK.

How does it all work?

Metal AM uses a selective laser melting (SLM) process to deposit layers of metal powder on to a build plate. These layers are built up gradually in thicknesses between 20 and 100 microns, and then melted in selected areas using a computer controlled laser beam. The SLM process forms 3D metal parts that meet exacting customer specifications, without the need for cutting or welding, hence its ‘additive’ name. Any excess powder is removed and recycled, reducing waste produced as a result of the production process and lowering the carbon footprint of the manufacturer. AM techniques provide the end user with a more efficient, bespoke product that performs at an optimum rate for an extended period of time to extend the lifespan of the filtration unit.

Through design optimisation and by melting only where necessary, AM technology can reduce the weight of the end product, as well as the total production time. The additive layering of metal powder enables manufacturers to produce components as a single structure, providing increased strength versus welded assemblies that are weaker in the fused areas. By producing intricate, bespoke designs from 3D CAD data, AM can control the weight distribution during manufacturing to create a lightweight product. This control through AM technology minimises the cost of additional materials, which would be wasted in a conventional subtractive process, and offers businesses never-before-possible flexibility and innovation in the design of metal components.

Filtration innovation

Historically, subtractive manufacturing has been the established method to produce complex filtration products. For instance, cutting and welding will be used to produce a single component; however, these techniques can be time consuming and use a significant amount of energy, due to the lengthy labour processes involved. AM technology can reduce production timescales by manufacturing the item in one step, directly from CAD data.

At Croft Filters, we produce filtration components using a range of subtractive techniques, including CNC punching and machining. However, following in-depth research, we identified a significant opportunity in using AM technology to reduce energy usage and produce components that could not be created using any other method.

At FILTECH 2013, Europe’s largest filtration exhibition, we were the first company ever to exhibit filters that had been produced using advanced metal AM technology. These Stainless Steel 316 filters were designed to remove contaminants found in compressed air lines.

By using AM techniques, we were able to manufacture highly efficient components, thus creating a complex filter offering a higher flow rate. Ultimately, this means water can be pumped at a lower pressure, while still achieving optimum filtration results, reducing operating costs for the end-user. This is just one example of the many potential applications of AM technology within industry and the opportunities it offers to improve operational efficiencies.

Complex concept to completed product

Complex filters are difficult to manufacture using traditional techniques and can be produced to exacting standards using AM technology. For instance, wedge wire filters, which are integral to a number of high performance filtration applications in oil and gas industries, require ‘v’ shaped bars to be welded to end-caps and a machined-threaded end. We simplified this process, which is complex and time-consuming, and developed a method of manufacturing these components using our Realizer SLM-250 metal 3D printing machine.

By using this method rather than joining separate components together, the designer has options to change the size of the filtration area and the aperture size, with a wide variety of fittings and ends available. Additional advantages include the fact it is of one material construction and therefore only one material test certificate is required for the whole filter. These advantages have cost-saving benefits for the end-user because of the increase in speed of production and the lack of tooling required. The filter can be an idea on Monday and a product on Wednesday.

What next?

The James Dyson Award 2013, which recognises the next generation of design engineers, was won by ‘Titan Arm’, a titanium arm created using 3D printing techniques. In addition, the UK Government has announced plans to invest £500,000 in 3D printing technology in schools, highlighting a shift in focus within engineering toward the computer-aided design of the future.

AM has the potential to revolutionise filtration solutions and offer a greater level of customer specification options. For instance, at Croft Filters, we’ve developed a patent-pending energy saving filter, created using AM techniques, which can contribute to the lowering of individual companies’ energy usage and bills. We are continuing to expand our AM offering to create more filtration structures and offer our customers greater design possibilities.

Through the use of bespoke, energy efficient items, industries can challenge the filtration and separation structures of old and improve efficiency. With a growing demand for bespoke, cost effective components, those industries open to exploring the potential of this disruptive technology will be at a real advantage in the business landscape of the next decade.