How to Convert CNC Router into 3D Printer in 2022?

The modern advanced CNC machines offer more possibilities of machining workpieces with their tool-changing potential. Unlike the age-old CNC machines that could only handle one tool/bit at a time, this tool-changing feature in the modern machines makes the process faster and efficient. For example, you can install a number of bits starting from the largest  bit to gradually decreasing the bit size, then use this facility to machine a workpiece to chop off the majority portion with the largest bit installed, then gradually progress to the smaller bits to grind down the piece into a shiny output.

So, what will happen if one of those tool bits  in the tool changer is a 3D printing metal unit? Well, that is exactly what can be called a 3D hybrid CNC solution. 

I have taken the instance of a CNC router to demonstrate how to convert it into a 3D printer.

Here is what the process follows: 

  • First of all, install the metal toolhead fixture of a 3D printer into your CNC router metal 
  • Then do a rough 3D printing of some layers, using the above setup
  • Next, swap and replace that 3D print toolhead from the router with any of the existing CNC bits 
  • Cut and reshape the edges of the 3D printed layers to smoothen the product 
  • Now swap the router tool again and reinstall 3D printer toolhead to continue with upward printing 
  • Repeat the process until your intended 3D printing project is completed

This procedure is actually used by certain 3D printer manufacturers who intend to develop hybrid 3D metal CNC printers. However, such developments would typically cost around $500,000 (in USD) or more. 

Now it would be really expensive to invest more in installing a 3D printer in a workshop that already costed thousands of thousands in installing a CNC router. That’s why I suggested the above “dashed points” where you will only need the metal toolhead of a 3D printer to use it in your CNC router. This will reduce your budget significantly while giving you easy access to turn your router into a 3D printing unit. Consequently, the device will act as a two-in-one hybrid machine to meet varied clientele project requirements.

Basically, there are about 9 basic 3D printing techniques based on which the respective toolhead is employed. However, I am going to talk about 3 exclusively new 3D metal additive toolheads, where each offers a different approach to hybrid printing via CNC machine. 

  • Wire-Arc toolhead, which is also called “Powder + Wire Arc” toolhead for a reason, utilizes a powerful electrical arc technology. The electric discharge can melt an array of feed-stock alloys, while your CNC router moves the toolhead around to appropriately deposit the melt pool. A co-deposition system is used by the tool to 3D print the project with a metal power and wire feed. You can also use glass powder in the process to form a composite material when mixed with the melting wire on the fly. This feature gives your machine an added capability to create new composite materials, everytime you involve newer alloys wires and metal powder or others in the process.
  • The next 3D toolhead is the Laser that features a powerful laser, typically ranging from 500 Watt to 25,000 Watt circa. Its mechanism involves a special nozzle through which fine metal powder is gusted, which is then turned into a melt pool by the laser tool that is deposited appropriately by CNC. Another intriguing property of this Laser toolhead is its antigravity nozzle that apparently allows material deposition at obtuse angles to vertically upward direction. That means this Laser toolhead will work fantastically on a 5-axis CNC router (theoretically), thereby significantly reducing the duration of your 3D printing operation. 
  • The last of the three 3D tool-heads is the Cold Spray printing unit that can handle materials, like copper, which are otherwise hard to use with any other tool-heads. The mechanism of this toolhead involves a fine nozzle through which the metal powder is gusted at highest speeds (about 3500 foot per second or 1066.8 meter per second). Here the particle is basically mashed by kinetic energy onto the required spot. This toolhead is not only suitable for 3D printing an entire object but can also be used to spray metal coating over an existing object or repair it, so long as your CNC router understands the object’s shape.

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