How to Prepare a 3D Printed Composite Tool for Use

FDM composite tooling, similar to traditional tooling technologies, typically requires some level of post-processing depending on the size, application, and complexity of the tool. The most common post-processing operation for FDM composite tooling is sealing.

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  1. Step 1: Introduction & Materials

    As-built FDM composite tools have an inherent porosity (see Figure 1) and surface finish that is not acceptable for most composite part applications. Therefore a post-processing operation is typically necessary to achieve the desired tool performance.

    What you will need:

    High temperature epoxy sealer (recommended: BJB TC-1614)

    1,000-1,400- grit sandpaper

    120-800- grit sandpaper

    Optional: Adhesive-backed FEP films (Tooltec® or Toolwright from Airtech International, Inc.)

  2. Step 2: Addressing Surface Finish

    A variety of methods can be utilized to improve the surface roughness of the FDM tool, including manual abrasion, media blasting, tumbling, and skim-coat machining. The current best practice to meet surface-finish requirements (<64 µin Ra) and provide vacuum integrity is manual abrasion followed by application of an epoxy sealer (see image below). The basic sanding and sealing process consists of two thin coats of a high temperature epoxy sealer with a light sanding before each coat to maximize adhesion.

    After the second coat of epoxy, progressively finer grit sandpaper (120-800) is used to achieve the desired surface roughness. It is important to note that the goal of this process is not to sand out the layer lines but rather to fill the low points in the surface and remove any large peaks. The result should be a net zero dimensional change in the surface geometry while providing a smooth surface with vacuum integrity.

  3. Step 3: Sealing Methods

    As mentioned above, the inherent porosity in an FDM composite tool can be addressed with the application of an epoxy sealer. We recommend utilizing a tooling epoxy known as BJB TC-1614, but a wide range of epoxy resins can be used provided the selected material can withstand the required curing process.

    Additional methods for addressing the need for surface preparation and sealing include the application of adhesive-backed FEP films, such as Tooltec® and Toolwright from Airtech International, Inc. FEP films are often a quicker and easier alternative to the more traditional epoxy sealer. However, they can be difficult to apply to compound contours and they are typically less robust than epoxy sealers, requiring replacement after just a few cycles. The unique properties of FEP films make them well suited to repair tooling and other situations, where only a few parts will be needed.

  4. Step 4: Conclusion

    Similar to conventional tooling, FDM composite tooling typically requires some level of post-processing. We are  continually evaluating alternative post-processing methods and sealers to enhance performance and simplify the finishing process.