What is Polycarbonate?
Polycarbonate (PC) is a high-performance thermoplastic material with high impact strength and heat resistance. PC is very resistant to breaking or cracking when bent or put under stress, which is why it is one of the most common industrial thermoplastics on the market. Its ability to undergo high plastic deformation without cracking or breaking makes it great for processing and forming with sheet metal techniques. Polycarbonate is typically produced and sold in sheets where fabricators can laser cut and form them into the desired shape. However, there are other ways to fabricate products using PC. For instance, polycarbonate as a 3D printing material is allowing product creators to utilize polycarbonate in new and unconventional ways. With 3D printing, designers have more freedom to design polycarbonate parts with complex geometries and customizable features.
Conventional applications of polycarbonate include electrical components, DVDs, barriers (i.e. hockey rinks, riot shields, etc.), windows, greenhouses, automotive and aerospace components. All of which require exceptional mechanical and thermal properties. Its heat resistance and flame-retardant properties make polycarbonate great for making electrical components. PC can be used to make tooling fixtures for assembly of electrical components or as housings for end-use parts. A disadvantage of polycarbonate is its low scratch resistant, necessitating the use of scratch resistant coatings on objects that need to remain free of scratches (i.e. windows, car lights, etc.). Another property of PC is its low tensile modulus, or stiffness, which can be a benefit in many use cases that require bending or forming, but it can be a weakness if the application requires a product to be rigid and stiff like aluminum or carbon fiber.
Polycarbonate 3D Printing
With polycarbonate 3D printing, companies can create complex and highly customized products that can be put to the test in demanding applications. Polycarbonate 3D printed parts possess excellent interlayer adhesion, making them a great choice for parts that require stress loads in multiple directions. Tooling, functional prototypes and end use parts are all applications that are well suited for polycarbonate 3D printing. Designers can combine the fast lead times and cost savings of 3D printing with the reliability of one of the most widely used industrial thermoplastics. Jigs and fixtures can be rapidly, and cost effectively manufactured and incorporated into the production system. Likewise, 3D printed polycarbonate products can be prototyped and manufactured on-demand for end use parts due to polycarbonate’s high strength, heat resistance, and impact resistance.
Although polycarbonate offers excellent mechanical and thermal properties, polycarbonate is considered one of the more challenging materials to 3D print due to its tendency to warp. Warping can occur during 3D printing when a part cools unevenly during the 3D printing process. Uneven cooling can be caused by incorrect parameters or because of product designs that are not optimized for 3D printing. For instance, long thin unsupported features have a much higher tendency to experience warping than designs that are optimized for 3D printing. Check out our post on designing for 3D printing to learn more.
Keys to 3D Printing with Polycarbonate
Managing heat is one of the most important aspects to having a successful polycarbonate print. The build surface should be able to reach an adequate temperature and the print should be enclosed to maintain a steady surrounding temperature. The cooling fans should also be turned off to prevent any uneven cooling.
Ensuring a solid adhesion to the build surface is also essential to printing with polycarbonate. Even if the heat is properly managed, the material will still try to warp if it is not properly adhered to the build surface. PC prints best on a clean glass build surface that is completely free of residue or other debris. Properly built rafts are also critical when 3D printing polycarbonate. There are parameters in the slicing software that can be modified to control the amount of material extruded on the first layer of the raft. Polycarbonate requires a lot of material to be extruded on the first layer to ensure maximum adhesion to the build surface.
It is also critical to ensure that your polycarbonate part is optimized to be 3D printed. Large flat surfaces and thin protruding features will look fine in the CAD model but will likely fail when printed. Products should be designed to minimize the support structures needed, while also utilizing some of the advantages of 3D printing design such as geometric complexity, customization, and part consolidation. Check out ZABFAB’s design studio to learn more about designing your product for 3D printing.
Ready to start 3D printing your polycarbonate part? Contact us to get started!