An article from the HES-SO - Research project after covid

Inkjet printing technology will add speed and flexibility to the prototyping of miniaturized ceramic components. A team at the iPrint institute of the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR) is currently testing this groundbreaking process on behalf of Ceramaret, a Swiss SME.

Ceramaret is a Neuchâtel-based SME specialized in small-size ceramic components for the automobile, watch and medical industries. To better address the needs of its customers, Ceramaret continuously invests in research on materials and manufacturing processes. The ongoing sanitary crisis has only highlighted the value of innovation in production methods across all industries. For ceramic components in particular, there was at one point a serious risk that the pandemic might negatively impact work processes due to mandatory quarantining and distancing measures. As most processes are still done manually in this industry, a shortage of personnel can quickly result in reduced output. It was in this urgent context that Ceramaret called on the expertise of iPrint’s engineers to accelerate the digitalization of certain steps in their ceramic component production process.

The enormous potential of inkjet printing technology is being increasingly recognized and explored in the context of industry 4.0. However, obstacles to adoption in the ceramic components industry include the cost of printer models currently on the market (ranging from CHF 200'000 to CHF 500'000) as well as their limited flexibility with regards to ceramic materials.

Fortunately, the iPrint institute is working on a solution to this problem. Tapping its advanced expertise in the development of printers as well as printable materials or “inks”, the institute is currently putting the final touches on both a printer and a printable material that will enable high-quality prototyping of ceramic components.

The current production process for ceramic components involves five stages and can take several weeks to complete. This is also true for prototyping. Furthermore, in case of failure, the entire process has to be restarted. Thanks to iPrint’s groundbreaking development work, however, the entire production process could soon be reduced to just 48 hours. The innovation is possible thanks to iPrint’s combined expertise in inkjet applications and in the selection of printing materials, which in this case identified an ink type composed of nano-zirconia with a specific particle size and suspension as the optimal material.

Prototypes made with inkjet technology have clear advantages. Contrary to prototypes produced with injection molding whose quality can only be assessed in the finished product, inkjet’s “layer by layer” approach makes it possible to monitor quality at intermediary stages as well. Furthermore, inkjet printing enables the creation of objects with complex shapes, which gives unparalleled freedom to designers and engineers. Inkjet technology is unlocking a new set of possibilities for the design, production and testing of ceramic components that was not possible using conventional processes.

Currently in the test phase, the Inkjet-Tzprint project should see the light of day in autumn 2021. Its launch will give Ceramaret an important competitive advantage and bolster its capacity to innovate and adapt to new market conditions. Over time, the project might become useful not just for prototyping, but also for market-ready production.

Contact: Ioana Preda (Associate Professor UAS - ioana.preda@hefr.ch)

19 July 2022

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