A Brave New World for 3D Printing
I’ve been watching some of the new advancements that are coming out in 3D printing recently, and I am excited for what the future holds for manufacturing and the custom automotive and motorcycle industries. For the last few weeks I’ve been ogling the Desktop Metal 3d printer, and what it offers for only $100,000.
When i first started watching 3D metal printing the only printers that could make actual usable parts where $500,000-$750,000 powder bed machines that used either lasers to sinter the metal powder into a part. The powders are prohibitively expensive, and the micron-sized particles are easily inhaled, destroying your lungs. So special suits and containment systems are necessary for safety. The drawback of the printing method is that you can not print a closed chambered object. Everything must either be solid, or needs to have an open cavity so that you can get the powder out of the part when it’s done printing. I’m not bagging on Laser Sintering, at all. All told I have probably watched hours of video of those lasers sweeping back and forth to make parts, but mere mortals will probably never get to see a DMLS machine, let alone afford to have and use one.
What the latest from Desktop Metal does is something completely different. Instead of a powder bed, these metal printers use Atomic Diffusion Additive Manufacturing (ADAM). It prints with a metal powder infused plastic filament, and extrudes just like a regular FDM type 3d printer. then the part is washed in a bath that removes the binder from the powder parts, and then the part gets put into the furnace where it is sintered (meaning the metal is heated to the point where the powder becomes fluid enough to bind together). After sintering, the part can be removed from the printed supports by hand and is ready to be put into service. With printable tolerances down to 50 micron, it’s not likely that any post-processing will be needed before service.
It’s $100K, gulp, i know, right? But compared to the half-million dollar and above industrial machines, this is something that regular engineers and designers can have in-house. Because it’s clean and the materials being printed are not a health hazard, these machines are being marketed as “desktop” machines. They look to be about the size of a copy machine. Yes, $100K is still a lot of money when you are comparing it to little PLA and Nylon printers that are out now, but you have to compare it to the technology it is competing against. As much as the plastic extruder printer guys would love to upgrade to a Desktop Metal machine, that is not the market it is aiming for. It is competing with CNC controlled 5-axis milling machines, and customized casting and injection molding processes. A cheap 5- axis machine will cost you an easy $150,000. It will also take up a huge amount of room and resources to use. I’ve had custom motorcycle wheels cut with a 5-axis, and it started with a several hundred pound aluminum billet and after an entire day of work it worked one down to a motorcycle wheel weighing under 20 pounds, and it cost a fortune to have done. By cost comparison with the cost of the filament that the Metal X uses, i could have made this same wheel at about 1/5 the price. Granted, the desktop versions don’t have the build volume to do an entire wheel, but Desktop Metal does have an industrial sized counterpart going into production. Once the technology is available, it seems like a size upgrade would be the next step in the process.
What does it mean when you can replace an expensive cnc mill, lathe and casting equipment with a single 3D printer? The future of small scale manufacturing and prototyping. A single engineer can take a prototype from design to production. It can save lots of overhead on space, expensive labor to operate specialized machine processes, and a versatile fabrication production system. The smaller your volume, the more sense it makes. For an industry like custom motorcycles and hotrod fabrication, every part is a prototype. We will make only a handful of each one-off part. This type of system then becomes ideal. We could save time, shop space, labor and money by doing small scale production runs in house and on one piece of equipment.