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Morphing nozzle offers new control of fibre alignment


Engineers at the University of Maryland (UMD) have created a morphing nozzle that provides a new way of controlling fibre alignment during 3D printing. 

morphing nozzle
The morphing nozzle in action, 3D printing fiber-filled composite materials with on-demand control of fiber alignment for 4D printing (Image: UMD)

Fibre-filled composites are made up of short fibres that can enhance properties such as part strength or electrical conductivity. The challenge is that these properties are based on the orientations of the short fibres, which has been difficult to control during the 3D printing process.

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“When 3D printing with the morphing nozzle, the power lies on their side actuators, which can be inflated like a balloon to change the shape of the nozzle, and in turn, the orientations of the fibres,” said Ryan Sochol, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing (BAM) Laboratory at UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. The team’s findings have been published in Advanced Materials Technologies.

To demonstrate their new approach, the researchers concentrated on 4D printing applications. “4D printing refers to the relatively new concept of 3D printing objects that can reshape or transform depending on their environment,” said co-author and UMD mechanical engineering professor David Bigio. “In our work, we looked at how printed parts swelled when submerged in water, and specifically, if we could alter that swelling behaviour using our morphing nozzle.”

Recent advances in 4D printing rely on materials capable of anisotropic expansion, swelling more in one direction than another, as well as isotropic expansion, swelling identically in all directions. According to UMD, switching between these conditions has typically required researchers to print with multiple, different materials.

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“What was exciting was discovering that we could cause a single printed material to transition between anisotropic and isotropic swelling just by changing the nozzle’s shape during the 3D printing process,” said Connor Armstrong, lead author of the study.

“Importantly, the nozzle’s ability to morph and to even up the score in terms of swelling properties is not limited to 4D printing,” said study co-author and recently graduated mechanical engineering undergraduate student Noah Todd. “Our approach could be applied for 3D printing many other composite materials to customise their elastic, thermal, magnetic or electrical properties for example.”

To build the morphing nozzle itself, the team used PolyJet printing. This multi-material inkjet-based approach offered by UMD’s Terrapin Works 3D Printing Hub allowed the researchers to 3D print their nozzle with flexible materials for the inflatable side actuators and the shape-changing central channel, but then rigid materials for the outer casing and the access ports.

“The use of multi-material PolyJet 3D printing enabled us to design the nozzle with an operating power range or set of pressure magnitudes that can be reproduced in essentially any research laboratory,” said study co-author and mechanical engineering PhD candidate Abdullah Alsharhan.

In one application of this new approach, the team is exploring the use of their strategy to realise biomedical applications in which bulk printed objects could reshape in the presence of particular stimuli from the body. The team is also in discussions with several US Department of Defense labs to use the morphing nozzle to support the production of weapons and other military systems.

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