Metal 3D printing is promising big improvements in speed, cost, and quality that could signal a tipping point for an industry slowed by million-dollar machines.
By Mark Shortt
Much of the hype around 3D printing in recent years has involved products that could be produced relatively quickly from plastic materials. But metal 3D printing has been an entirely different story—one defined by arduous research and development that has unfolded slowly, away from the spotlight. Any engineer who’s worked to qualify metal 3D printed parts for critical aerospace or medical applications can tell you how long and difficult those processes can be. Perhaps even more frustrating are the high costs of established metal 3D printing technologies—powder bed fusion techniques like direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and electron beam melting (EBM)—that have pushed those technologies beyond the reach of most engineers.
Steep costs have steered metal 3D printing away from higher quantity, lower-end applications, where it isn’t economical, and toward the more selective, lower quantity, critical-use industries, where the stakes are higher, the degrees of difficulty greater, and the quality standards stiffer and non-negotiable. And until the cost barriers are solved, they’re likely to prevent metal 3D printing from gaining significantly greater traction in the marketplace.
But signs of change are beginning to emerge. Wohlers Report, an annual report on the state of the global additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry, noted sharp growth in the sales of metal additive manufacturing machines in 2017. The report, published by the consulting firm Wohlers Associates, estimated that 1,768 metal additive manufacturing systems were sold worldwide in 2017, representing a nearly 80 percent increase over 2016, when 983 systems were sold.
“Increasingly, global manufacturers are becoming aware of the benefits of producing metal parts by additive manufacturing,” said Wohlers Associates in a release announcing its report.
Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, said in an interview with D2P that a number of factors are fueling the growth. Some companies that are using metal additive manufacturing (metal 3D printing) machines have passed the qualification and certification phases with flying colors and are now ready to move into production. To make the transition to higher part quantities, they need to add more capacity.
“You can get by with one to three machines for qualifying the materials and processes, and then certifying designs, but you need a lot more capacity for production—and, in some cases, dramatically more,” said Wohlers.
Also contributing to the growth is an upsurge in the number of companies that are selling the machines. In China alone, 12 additional companies were found to be manufacturing and selling machines that produce metal 3D printed parts, Wohlers said.
Yet another significant factor is the swift emergence of a three-year-old company that’s determined to change the way engineering and manufacturing teams produce metal parts. Desktop Metal, Inc., the developer of a technology that promises dramatically faster and lower-cost production of high-resolution metal parts, had a breakout year in 2017 while taking in a reported “several hundred” reservations and orders for its metal 3D printing systems.
“Desktop Metal is really rethinking the way that parts might be made,” said Wohlers. “They’re selling in higher volumes than most companies that first offer, say, a metal powder bed fusion machine, because those machines are typically much higher priced and require a big commitment to make them work well.”
Metal Parts in Minutes
If you can feel the power of Desktop Metal’s claim that it’s reinventing how metal parts are manufactured, you’re not alone. Some of the biggest names in manufacturing and venture capital—Ford Motor Company, BMW Group, GV (formerly Google Ventures), GE, Stratasys, and New Enterprise Associates—have bought into the company’s vision of making metal 3D printing more affordable, more accessible, and much, much faster. That’s largely because Desktop Metal has developed an innovative metal 3D printer, the Production System, which it calls the “fastest 3D printing system for mass production of high-resolution metal parts.”
Based on a new approach to metal 3D printing called Single Pass Jetting (SPJ), the DM Production System™ is said to build metal parts in a matter of minutes, instead of hours. It prints at speeds of up to 8,200 cubic centimeters per hour, which the company says is 100 times faster than laser-based systems (see sidebar below).
Desktop Metal has raised more than $277 million in funding from investors enamored with the prospect of mass producing strong, functional, and high-quality metal parts at unprecedented speeds. The Burlington, Massachusetts-based company is on a mission to make metal 3D printing more affordable and accessible, from prototyping through mass production, and has launched two systems—the DM Studio System™ and DM Production System™—to make those goals a reality.
The Studio System, designed to bring metal 3D printing to an engineer’s desk or the shop floor, is a complete platform that includes a printer, a debinder, and a sintering furnace. Desktop Metal began shipping the Studio System to early customers—including Google’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) group—in December as part of its Pioneers Program roll-out. The Production System, designed for mass production of metal 3D printed parts, is currently in development and is scheduled to begin shipping in 2019.
Opening Doors to Opportunities
Jonah Myerberg, a co-founder of Desktop Metal and the company’s chief technology officer, told D2P that the company has essentially taken a technology that numerous industries have been watching very closely—metal 3D printing—and brought it closer to engineers and manufacturers than it’s ever been before.
“We’ve started opening doors and opportunities for them,” said Myerberg in a phone interview. “We’re launching two different machines, two different systems, and what those two systems enable is going to be almost kind of unpredictable going forward. Every peripheral industry around manufacturing is going to be affected if and when this technology takes off.”
For engineers, accessibility means a lot of different things. With the Studio System, it means engineers have a ready and affordable means of “rapidly prototyping and evolving real parts,” Myerberg said. Rather than having a “looks like, feels like, fits like” model of a part that hasn’t yet gone into production, the engineer is able to produce a part that is usable, functional, and representative of the final materials and properties.
“That will immediately give the engineer something to test, to really stress and exercise, and then to evolve the design faster,” said Myerberg. “Because let’s face it, the design process is an iterative process of failure. You design something, and it’s not perfect. It either doesn’t work, or you want to add something new, and then you have to redesign and redesign. So the faster you can do that, the more successful an engineer becomes as he or she develops the product.”
Metal 3D printing has been around for about 20 years, Myerberg said, and has been used for rapid prototyping of metal parts. But it hasn’t been easily accessible to engineers, mainly because it has always been expensive. The process requires big machines, complicated systems, and powdered metals that need to be controlled.
“Essentially, these are factory level machines that cost a million dollars, plus whatever the facility’s modifications are, plus dedicated operators and expenses to run them,” Myerberg said. “They don’t sit in your office the way that a polymers printer does.”
Companies that could afford the machines have scaled up factories by adding more and more machines to increase capacity. They might have hundreds, or even more than a thousand, million-dollar machines in a factory producing aerospace parts.
“The first step for us is to bring accessibility to the engineer,” Myerberg said. “Let them design parts, work in their office space, and let’s remove the barrier to entry for them to actually start playing around with metals. The second is making the metals more relevant to what you would see in production.”
That second step is important when an engineer wants to take a part into mass production. Although laser-based metal additive manufacturing technologies are capable of producing real metal parts out of steel, titanium, and aluminum, the microstructures of those parts are much different from those made by traditional production processes like casting, machining, or stamping. That’s because as the metal powder melts, it goes from a solid to a liquid, and then solidifies back into a solid.
“The microstructure of those parts is unlike anything that these engineers have ever seen before,” said Myerberg. “That’s why it’s taken companies like GE 10 years to qualify them for their applications. Because when you cross section and you look at the microstructure of these parts, you see a structure that’s not really made any other way.”
Because no other part in mass production has that same microstructure, the only way to take that 3D printed part into mass production is to scale the process. That means buying more machines to do more of the same laser welding techniques that produce those properties in a part. It’s a route that most companies simply cannot afford.
A Faster, Less Expensive Way to Mass Produce Metal Parts
To avoid this problem, Desktop Metal designed its systems to use metal injection molding (MIM) materials with properties that are familiar to engineers. As the parts come off the engineers’ desks and are tested, their properties are well understood, making it much easier and less expensive to take those parts into mass production via processes like metal injection molding and hot isostatic pressing (HIP). But if you want to take a geometry that’s been designed for additive manufacturing into mass production, that’s where the Desktop Metal Production System comes in, Myerberg said.
“The engineer has been able to prototype, to design with the Studio System, and now the manufacturer can catch that design and put it into the same type of qualification plan, with the same type of materials and the same properties, on the Production System, and get the same properties out of the final part.”
By introducing technology to make metal parts with well-established properties, Desktop Metal enables engineers to quickly validate their parts. Even though they’re using a new printing process to create their parts, engineers know what they should be getting out of the process because they’re using known materials. Engineers are already familiar with materials like 17-4 stainless steel, 316 stainless steel, or 4140 Chromalloy, all of which can be used by the Studio and Production Systems.
“We’re not trying to introduce multiple, serial inventions at the same time,” said Myerberg. “We’ve introduced a new process using a known material, so the customer is able to quickly validate that. The real key to the accessibility of the Production System is the fact that it competes at the cost target—usually the cost target level of all other traditional manufacturing—and it produces parts that are well understood in their properties.”
—Jonah Myerberg, co-founder and CTO, Desktop Metal
What makes the Production System able to compete at the cost target of traditional manufacturing processes? One reason is its use of low-cost materials (MIM powders) from existing supply chains.
“There’s already a market for the materials that we’re using in powdered metal and metal injection molding, in which millions of tons of material are made each year,” said Myerberg. “We’re tapping into that supply chain and getting low cost materials that we can use as is.”
Desktop Metal’s combination of lower-cost materials, high throughput (speed), and simple post-processing are said to yield per-part costs that are not only competitive with traditional manufacturing processes, but as much as 20 times lower than competing metal 3D printing systems. The speed of the Production System drives total cost down by eliminating the need to buy more machines to increase production.
“The speed allows you to take that overhead—that capital cost—off the table,” said Myerberg. “That [capital cost of the equipment] becomes a fraction of the overall cost of the parts, and then the bulk of the part cost is in the material.
“If you’ve got a machine that builds at a couple of cubic inches per hour, like a laser based system does, then you need more machines to build those parts,” he continued. “But the way that Desktop Metal’s Production System is set up is like a printing press, like a 2D printing press, where it can produce 8,000 cubic centimeters per hour. Speed translates directly into cost now because you’re competing with traditional manufacturing processes like stamping and casting, where you would normally have to tool up a die, dedicate that die to a single geometry, a single part, and then move forward. The printer can now accept in any geometry; it doesn’t have to be a castable geometry or a stampable geometry, and then produce that without any tooling.”
The Production System features a number of innovative technologies—such as Single Pass Jetting and Separable Supports—that are unique to Desktop Metal. Although the system’s starting price has not yet been released, it is not expected to be trivial: Multiple industry sources have projected it to fall somewhere in the range of $500,000 to $800,000. If it comes in at the lower end of the range, its cost would be about 10 times that of the Studio machine, which lists at $49,900 for the printer, and $120,000 for the complete system, including debinder and furnace.
Smaller companies that can’t afford the Production System are likely to outsource their metal 3D printing production to larger service providers and contract manufacturers with bigger budgets. But Desktop Metal’s claims of dramatically lower total cost—over the service life of the machine—and unrivaled printing speed have companies all over the world taking notice.
“Even if they (Desktop Metal) are half right, that could really make a difference,” said Terry Wohlers. “That’s what’s gotten the attention of the investment community. Until we hear from customers that yes, this is doable, let’s reserve final opinions, but what I’ve seen so far looks pretty good.”
Separable Supports Reported to Minimize Post Processing Costs
One of the inventions Desktop Metal is introducing is its patented Separable Supports technology for both its Studio System and its Production System. The technology employs a Ceramic Release Layer™ that enables users to remove support structures for 3D printed parts by hand, even for large metal parts with complex geometries. It is a new approach to metal additive manufacturing that allows multiple materials to be used during printing.
“This makes it possible to print support structures that do not bond to parts and consolidate during sintering with the part,” said Myerberg in a release. “As a result, high dimensional accuracy is achieved, and support structures are easily removed by hand. We believe the benefit of this technology covered by the patents will enable substantially increased adoption of metal additive manufacturing.”
Terry Wohlers also believes the technology has the potential to help the metal additive manufacturing industry.
“The support structure technology that Desktop Metal developed—being able to print a ceramic powder in between the support material and the parts—is really interesting,” Wohlers told D2P. “Supports are a necessary evil, and they can be very difficult. That’s why the post processing can be so expensive, and if you can reduce that effort to a minimum, then you’ve really done something helpful to the industry.”
If parts are designed to take advantage of the Separable Supports technology, all one needs to do is tap on the benchtop or tabletop, and either the parts or the support material will fall away. Wohlers contrasted that with a laser based additive process by which metal is welded to metal.
“You can imagine how difficult it is to remove those supports, and the artifacts that are left over that you have to grind away and smooth,” he said. Wohlers, looking at parts printed by a Desktop Metal machine as he spoke, said that the surfaces of the parts, although not perfectly smooth, were “dramatically better than if you were cutting away support material.”
Exploring Ways to Simplify Design for Additive Manufacturing
Customers often come to Desktop Metal with parts that weren’t designed for additive manufacturing, but instead were designed to be stamped, cast, or manufactured via a more traditional process. When asked “Can you print this?” Desktop Metal’s engineers will say “yes,” but with a bit of advice: To take full advantage of all that additive manufacturing has to offer, customers will need to take a hard look at their designs and begin redesigning them for additive manufacturing.
But Myerberg acknowledges that it’s one thing to tell a customer to design a part for additive manufacturing, and quite another for the customer to actually understand how to do it.
“The customer says ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that,’ but it’s a lot of work to redesign, and, especially, to reteach their engineers the rules of additive manufacturing and how to model parts that will print well. So we feel a responsibility to our customer to help them in that process. The additive manufacturing process is a full loop, from concept all the way to finished part, and we are responsible to participate in that and make it as painless for the customer as possible.”
Myerberg expects that it will take some time before engineers are universally fluent in design for additive manufacturing. Although universities are starting to teach design for additive manufacturing (DfAM), most universities still don’t offer courses in DfAM, he said.
“When I went to school, I certainly didn’t learn design for additive manufacturing. Design for additive is new, and so we’re kind of the bridge between the physical world and the digital world—the digital world of CAD and the physical world of parts. We’re connecting the CAD, through a 3D printer, into real parts,” Myerberg said.
Terry Wohlers said that the current lack of knowledge around design for additive manufacturing is one of the biggest challenges that will need to be overcome to enable more widespread use of metal 3D printing. It’s important for engineers to learn how to design for the process because the costs of products are heavily tied to their design. If a product that normally consists of 50 different parts of an assembly can be designed to require only half as many parts, that can have a dramatic impact on cost, he said.
“The tools to design for the process are still relatively new, and the use of them is not, generally, well understood,” Wohlers said. “So it’s not easy. But we’re seeing use cases where companies are overcoming that—not in a dramatic way, but enough to justify the cost of this new way of manufacturing.”
Desktop Metal is working to speed the advancement of design for additive manufacturing through a partnership it established earlier this year with Dassault Systemes and its SolidWorks software brand. The companies have agreed to integrate SolidWorks applications with Desktop Metal’s 3D printing systems, enabling SolidWorks users to preview Live Parts™, an experimental software that Desktop Metal is developing to simplify the process of generative design for 3D printing. The software uses advanced simulation to shape strong, functional parts with complex geometries in minutes.
Myerberg said it’s important for the industry to continue to show that metal 3D printing technologies are applicable to mass production, not just prototyping, and that they’re reliable enough to apply to any metals application, rather than being limited to aerospace or medical uses.
“That takes some time to evolve and to adapt, but it’s going to be a lot faster than what happened in aerospace, where it took 10 years to qualify for the first part to be flown,” he said. “This next generation of engineers—the first thing that they think of is printing—‘I’m going to design a part, and I’m going to print it.’ We want to encourage that. We’re going to encourage that in the right way, teach that in the right way.”
Myerberg, a mechanical engineer himself, is excited about the potential for further adoption of metal 3D printing. He believes that as early as next year, the benefits and accessibility of metal 3D printing will open the doors for more companies to use the technology to make parts for consumer electronics, automotive, and other use cases.
“All of these industries have been watching medical, watching aerospace, and wishing that they had accessibility to metal 3D printing,” he said. “As we bring the cost and complexity down, bring the speed up, and start to bring metal 3D printing into the office, companies are going to start to use it more and embrace it more.”
Earlier in his engineering career, he considered metal 3D printing to be out of reach because of its cost.
“I couldn’t make the economics work. But the minute you turn that corner and you make the economics work, it’s this tipping point where the adoption just grabs hold and runs with it, and that’s the most exciting part.”
Intelligent Layering Technology Reported to Trim Part Costs
In the world of metal additive manufacturing, cost is, by far, the number one barrier to entry. But the cost of the machine is just the beginning of a long, costly journey to being able to produce parts in volume, to the specifications required. Printing a prototype part is one thing, but to be able to move into production requires a whole ecosystem of expertise that companies need to have.
“It is a significant investment, and the million dollar machine is just the start,” said Matt Sand, president and co-founder of 3DEO, a technology and manufacturing company in Gardena, California. “And for binder jetting systems, the maintenance alone on the inkjet heads, the spray heads, is upwards of $75,000 per year.”
Sand’s technical partners and co-founders, Matt Petros and Payman Torabi, were intent on finding a way around this formidable cost barrier. They zeroed in on inkjet, a technology originally designed for 2D printing, rather than 3D binder jetting. The question on their minds was “How can we invent a system that takes a lot of the cost out of it?”
For Petros and Torabi, the answer was a design that doesn’t use an inkjet to spray the binder. Instead, it uses a low cost spray head that lacks the complexity of an inkjet and leverages established technologies like CNC milling for excellent repeatability and reliability.
“We have a very low cost spray head, and we use that to bind the entire layer. Then we come back and we CNC the layer with an end mill—with a micro end mill that’s as small as 125 microns,” said Sand. “It’s the smallest drill bit you’ve ever seen. And so it’s really interesting: Old school manufacturing, CNC machining meets the new school of additive. We’re building the parts layer by layer, so we get all the advantages and complexities of additive manufacturing, while at the same time, drastically reducing the machine costs.”
3DEO’s technology, Intelligent Layering®, is said to unleash the potential of additive manufacturing by reducing final part cost by as much as 80 percent while meeting the MPIF Standard 35. Sand cites three main contributors to the low part cost—extremely low machine cost, the use of off-the-shelf commodity materials, and creative software design.
“It was iterated through so many different technologies and approaches, to finally get to where we are today. I think it’s an elegantly simple solution, but it’s simplicity on the far side of complexity. It took a lot of R&D by the guys on the technical side to get to where we are.”
Sand emphasized that 3DEO is both a technology company and a manufacturing company.
“We view ourselves first and foremost as a technology company. A lot of manufacturing companies—and there’s nothing wrong with this at all—will just buy off-the-shelf machines to be able to produce. We’re a technology company because we’ve actually invented this new, kind of breakthrough, low cost technology that we use for ourselves.”
According to 3DEO, the Intelligent Layering process begins by spreading a thin layer of metal powder over the build area. A binder is then applied to the entire layer being built. A cutter then shapes the perimeter of the part, layer by layer, before the next layer of powder is spread. Next, the completed part is put into a high-throughput furnace for sintering. Finally, a finishing process may be applied, depending on the application.
“The way we think about our process is ‘MIM (metal injection molding) without the molds,’” said Lance Kallman, 3DEO’s vice president of business development, in an interview at Singularity University’s Exponential Manufacturing Summit in Boston. “The founders actually created the technology with low cost in mind because there’s obviously a very high end market for metal additive right now. So they created a process that ties to the metal injection molding standards MPIF 35 (Metal Powder Industries Federation’s Materials Standards for Metal Injection Molded Parts).
“We’re using MIM powders, so once the layering is complete, the part goes into a MIM furnace. At the end, when our parts come out, they’re just like MIM parts, but we created them without all the tooling costs required to create a metal injection mold. The CNC machine that we use is very low power, which means very low cost because all it’s doing is cutting powder and glue; it’s not cutting a finished molded part.”
Why is the technology called “Intelligent Layering?”
Sand said it offers two capabilities—dynamic layering and three-dimensional cutting—that are unlike anything else seen in today’s 3D printing processes. He used the example of a simple part geometry, a straight extrusion with a flat side, to illustrate dynamic layering. Rather than having to cut each layer as it’s being built one layer at a time, 3DEO can cut 20 layers at a time with a single cut of its CNC end mill.
“The benefit of that is we can go a lot faster, but just as importantly, the side finish of that part is going to be much cleaner because it’s just one cut, rather than having to try and perfectly align 20 different cuts,” said Sand.
The second aspect of Intelligent Layering, the ability to cut in three dimensions, is what Sand called “probably our favorite part of the whole technology.”
“We have a 3-axis CNC machine, and so if you have a curved surface, we no longer have to lay down layer by layer and cut two-dimensional approximations of the curved surface,” he explained. “We can now cut in three dimensions along the curvature, and so it’s not an approximation of the surface; it is the exact surface. That’s going to help because it basically eliminates the stair stepping effect that you see in a lot of parts, and it gives us an exact approximation, and it gives us a really clean surface finish.”
Sand, a U.S. Air Force veteran with an undergraduate degree in computer science from Tulane and an M.B.A. from UCLA, is part of a new wave of manufacturing leaders who come to manufacturing with a technology background. “If there were 40 hours in a day, I’d be programming four to five hours a day—I really love it!” he said. Software and data analytics have played, and continue to play, key roles in building 3DEO’s unique technology and making its factory more efficient.
—Matt Sand, president, 3DEO
“We’re building everything custom ourselves, and the build process is very different from anything else out there, so we couldn’t use anything off the shelf,” said Sand. “So we’ve had to basically rewrite and reinvent the STL generator, which is the 3D printing file generator. We have our own proprietary format, and we have our own programs to do the part printing aspect of it.”
Each of 3DEO’s machines uses dozens of sensors and cameras that collect operations data as parts are built. The data is then used to help analyze whether each part has met requirements.
“We can actually determine that in real time, on the fly, as we’re manufacturing, to catch any problems before they become big problems,” said Sand. “With our sensors in the machine, we’ll be able to identify immediately if we’re going to have any problems, and circumvent them. We take pictures of every layer, we have all kinds of sensors monitoring the build, and we’re monitoring everything you could imagine within the build.”
Digital dashboards give 3DEO’s staff real-time feedback on what’s occurring in the factory, tying together everything from operations efficiency to factory capacity. When a customer wants to place an order, 3DEO’s sales team can see in real time the available capacity of the factory and when they’d be able to deliver the parts—all without having to call the manufacturing manager. Sand credits the machine sensors with enabling the generation of real time data that allows 3DEO to do analytics on what they’re seeing, and predictive analytics on what’s coming next.
“We’re building a custom ERP system to be able to manage all of this,” said Sand. “Although we’re not there yet, machine learning will play a big part in what we’re doing and how we continue to make the factory more efficient.”
Sand believes it’s an exciting time for manufacturing, and for metal 3D printing in particular. He said that for the first time in his many years as a sales person, when he first calls a prospect, he invariably gets a call back.
“We’re going to market as a parts supplier, and one of the coolest things is the tail wind that we’re seeing with additive manufacturing,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the high-level conversations we’re having with global manufacturers right now—and with the high-level executives—because they all see that additive manufacturing, to one degree or another, is really going to change the face of manufacturing.”
In-house Supply Chain Focuses on Quality Control
Sintavia, a metal additive manufacturing supplier in Davie, Florida, has centered its business model on growing an ecosystem of additive manufacturing expertise inside the walls of its vertically integrated manufacturing facility. The company is unusual in that sense. Rather than outsourcing or subcontracting work to additive manufacturing suppliers, Sintavia has taken pains to develop and nurture what amounts to a complete 3D metal manufacturing supply chain—mainly for the aerospace and defense industry— within its own facility.
“As a fully integrated supply chain, Sintavia is poised to meet all the quality, validation, and post processing needs, all in one facility,” said Sintavia President and Chief Technical Officer Doug Hedges, in an interview. “What Sintavia has done is blaze a trail into an unknown territory in 3D printing. The reason we are able to undertake this process is because of the resources we have in house to test and control production from beginning to end.”
Even though Sintavia can be characterized as an additive manufacturer, Hedges said, that only begins to tell the story of the company’s depth of expertise. Quality is a prominent issue in aerospace manufacturing, as it is for all critical industries, and Sintavia prides itself on quality control.
“It takes a wide variety of skills to make this all work properly,” said Hedges. “We have expertise in designing for additive manufacturing, so the engineers know how to design these parts and help the customers get to their end product. We have the expertise in post-processing—that’s hot isostatic pressing (HIP), heat treatment, CNC machining, et cetera. We have the expertise in metallurgy, and it’s complemented by our mechanical testing. So that’s really what Sintavia’s about, and when I speak of that, it really is all about quality control. All the resources that we have to do this job ultimately come down to quality control.”
For more on Sintavia, see The Metal Additive Manufacturing Supply Chain Is in the House.
Desktop Metal Production System Is Built for Speed
Single Pass Jetting is reported to work 100 times faster than laser-based systems
Desktop Metal touts its Production System as being the first metal 3D printer for mass production. Powered by a technology called Single Pass Jetting, the Production System is reported to work up to 100 times faster than laser based additive manufacturing systems.
“Metal 3D printing could change much of the world around us if it was fast enough and cheap enough for mass production,” Desktop Metal says in a video on its website that outlines how the Production System works. “To date, metal 3D printing has been too expensive and too slow to change the world around us. At up to 100 times faster than existing technologies, the Production System unlocks the cost per part needed for mass production. For the first time, it’s possible to go to market with metal 3D printing.”
Here’s how it works, as told in the video:
The system combines two powder spreaders and one print unit into a single pass system to both spread metal powder and print. Unlike existing 3D printing, there is no wasted motion with Single Pass Jetting: A single pass starts in the powder spreader, where a metering system deposits metal powder, and a compacting system forms a layer as thin as a human hair. The print bar follows, jetting droplets of a binding agent. Millions are jetted per second, binding metal powder to form high resolution layers.
Anti-sintering agents are then deposited, making it possible for supports to fall off after sintering, saving hours of post processing. Once the layer is dried, the process repeats itself.
“The system combines all the necessary steps for printing into a single pass, so whenever there is movement, there is printing. This makes it possible to print parts in minutes instead of hours.”
Single pass jetting is bi-directional. The system combines all the necessary steps for printing into a single pass, so whenever there is movement, there is printing. This makes it possible to print parts in minutes instead of hours, according to Desktop Metal.
Once printed, the brown parts are densified in a micro-wave enhanced furnace that combines conventional heating with microwaves to speed up sintering. A closed loop thermal control system regulates temperatures in real time, as parts are heated to just below their melting point. Binder is removed, and metal particles are fused to form a dense solid.
The Production System is cloud connected. Sophisticated software manages the entire workflow, with profiles that are tuned to every build and material, from the printer to the furnace, delivering dense metal parts.
The result is sheer throughput. In the time that it takes laser based processes to produce just 12 impellers, Desktop Metal’s Single Pass Jetting technology would have produced more than 500, the company says.
Source: Desktop Metal (www.desktopmetal.com/products/production)