With 3D printing comes complex shapes, these shapes sometimes cannot support themselves during the printing process. To solve this 3D print slicing software generates support filler that holds up part of a print. This support material is then broken away to reveal the finished object. This has been the common approach for single extruder 3D printers. A few years ago printer manufacturing companies started to add dual extruders allowing users to print with two different filaments. Today there are some companies that offer more than two extruders on a printer, and if you have not heard of Pallette 2 form Mosaic Manufacturing you should check that out. The hardware for 3D printing has come a long way in terms of capabilities. For support materials advances are being made here showing great promise.
Support materials fall into two categories. Break-away and dissolvable. Break-away support pertains to the mechanical process of physically breaking away the support material. As mentioned above if the material is the same as the object being printed the support and object inherently fuse together like any other layer of the print. This support and object fusion makes it hard to break-away the support. To improve on this material companies have created specific materials for break-away support applications. Naturworks has recently released a new PLA for this, 3D450. This new grade of PLA is only for break-away support prints. However technically all support material is break-away. This type of support only goes so far, leaving areas that are unreachable impossible for support removal. That is where the new type of support material comes in.
Dissolvable support material is the other category that is really exciting. The idea here is simple, using a dual printer, print the object and support material. Once the print it is complete it is soaked in water or chemicals to dissolve the support material revealing the finished object. Materials that are used in this area are mostly PVA based. PVA stands for polyvinyl alcohol. This is a water-soluble material. Check out this video from Ultimaker about PVA. HIPS, short for High Impact Polystyrene is another material that can be used for dissolvable support. To dissolve HIPS d-Limonene, oil from orange peels, is used. This type of support material is neat because it allows for parts with internal voids to be printed and dissolved without having to physically touch or reach that area of the print where the support needs to be removed.
All of these solutions and options for making objects allow designers to push the limits, without being constrained to old-style design methodologies. Making parts that are complex without needing complex machines. We are so excited to see the advancements with support materials, multi-material printing, and 3D printing overall. The future is amazing and it is here today. What will you print next?