100x faster, 10x cheaper: 3D metal printing is about to go mainstream

100x faster, 10x cheaper: 3D metal printing is about to go mainstream, by Loz Blain.

Desktop Metal – remember the name. This Massachussetts company is preparing to turn manufacturing on its head, with a 3D metal printing system that’s so much faster, safer and cheaper than existing systems that it’s going to compete with traditional mass manufacturing processes. …

Plenty of design studios and even home users run desktop printers, but the only affordable printing materials are cheap ABS plastics. …

Desktop Metal is an engineering-driven startup whose founders include several MIT professors, and Emanuel Sachs, who has patents in 3D printing dating back to the dawn of the field in 1989. …

The hype is real. And if Desktop Metal delivers on its promises – that it can make reliable metal printing up to 100 times faster, with 10 times cheaper initial costs and 20 times cheaper materials costs than existing laser technologies, using a much wider range of alloys – these machines might be the tipping point for large scale 3D manufacturing. …

Without hazardous (and sometimes explosive) metal powders to deal with, or dangerous lasers, you can stick them pretty much anywhere without needing to install ventilation or make your workers wear respirators.

Indeed, having the Studio system around is much more like a regular old FDM (fused deposition modeling) ABS plastic printer than any other metal printing machine. It’s very low maintenance and requires no special support equipment or staff.

How it works:

The metals arrive in rod form, bound to a polymer binding agent and shipped in cartridges. But there’s a ton of metal options — basically anything you can use in a Metal Injection Molding (MIM) system. That includes 4140 chromoly steel, aluminum, copper, bronze, a range of stainless steels, Hiperco 50 magnetic, titanium, and more than 200 other alloys.

The Studio printer runs around and prints parts into layers of bound metal. The parts then go into a de-binding bath that removes a good portion of the binding polymer, and then the parts go into a sintering furnace.

The furnace is the special sauce in the Desktop Metal process. It uses a combination of regular heating elements and microwave heating to bring the part up to a temperature just below its melting point, where the binding agent burns off and the metal particles within fuse to their neighbors to produce a highly dense, sintered metal. …

Depending on the nature of the part, it might be necessary to do some post-print surface finishing like sanding or bead blasting to smooth out the layered surfaces, but effectively you’re left with a prototype part, produced quickly, in the production material and ready for testing. And parts are around 99.8 percent dense, which is huge. They’re very mechanically tough. …

Faster than machining, casting, forging or any other technique, each production printer can produce up to an incredible 500 cubic inches of complex parts per hour.

hat-tip byrmol