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How to Remove 3D Printed Mold Support

Since its inception 3D printing has moved from a lab curiosity to a modeling technology employed by anyone from kids making toys to astronauts on the Space Station. In the latter case, as noted in news reports, astronauts are testing a prototype 3D printer to determine how it works in zero gravity and if it can be used to “print” replacement parts. And while it’s difficult to minimize the impact of 3-D technology, whatever is manufactured using what is also called fuse deposition modeling (FDM) must include a means to remove 3d printed mold support.

What is 3-D Printed Mold Support?

3-D printing is accomplished by building a product using a plastic such as ABS on a mold support, aka scaffolding, made with PLA or similar soluble materials.The process entails layering thin strands of ABS and PLA according to the computer programmed design. Suffice it to say that the process is capable of producing extremely intricate designs at a cost much lower than other techniques such as the lost wax method.

Once the product is complete the mold support must be removed. As can be imagined, the more complex and delicate the product the more difficult it is to remove the scaffolding without damaging the product. Cavitation action in an ultrasonic cleaner has proven itself up to the task because it is fast, more thorough and gentle compared to water sprays and brushes.

Removing Scaffolding from 3D Printed Parts

Cavitation action is produced by generator-powered ultrasonic transducers bonded to the bottom of an ultrasonic cleaner tank. The transducers operate at an ultrasonic frequency such as 37 kHz (37,000 cycles per second) and produce countless minute bubbles that implode on contact with all surfaces immersed in the cleaning bath. The action accelerates dissolving and carries away the scaffolding leaving the cleaned 3D part undamaged.

Procedures employed to clean FDM parts will vary depending on the composition of the scaffolding and the part itself. Factors to consider when selecting the equipment include the size of the cleaning tank, the ultrasonic frequency employed and the composition or chemistry of the cleaning bath. Ultrasonic cleaners such as the dual-frequency 1.5-gallon Elmasonic PH150EL operates at 37 kHz or a gentler 80 kHz.

The Elmasonic P series is available in capacities from 3 quarts to 7. 5 gallons and can be programmed to automatically switch between frequencies every 30 seconds. Among other features the series also has adjustable power from 30 percent to full. This allows operators to tailor scaffolding removal to the FDM parts being cleaned. An operator controlled pulse mode is used to remove stubborn mold support deposits, and a heater provides bath temperatures recommended by manufactures of the cleaning solution chemistry. Equipment is also produced operating at single ultrasonic frequencies, typically between 25 and 45 kHz, and industrial-sized units are available for large FDM components.

In summary, the Elmasonic P series offered by iUltrasonic is a great choice when developing mold support removal procedures or for removing different scaffolding compositions. Once developed these procedures generally involve 3 basic steps:

1. Prepare the solution following manufacturers’ recommendations. This involves a degassing step to drive off trapped air from the solution. Elmasonic P equipment has a degassing mode to accomplish this. Otherwise operate the ultrasound for 10-15 minutes without a load.

2. Position the FDM part in the cleaner’s mesh basket, lower it into the solution and cover the tank. Set the timer and temperature as specified. The P equipment auto-starts when the temperature is reached and operates for the indicated time.

3. At the end of the cycle remove and inspect the part. If satisfied, rinse it and allow it to drain and dry.

After a time the solution will become saturated with dissolved mold support and must be replaced. Dispose of it according to local regulations, rinse the tank with fresh water and prepare a new solution.

As noted this is a simplified explanation of the process. We strongly encourage you to contact the iUltrasonic cleaning scientists at 973 440-2191 for an in-depth discussion covering your requirements and our recommendations on the equipment that best meets them.


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