Three-dimensional printing has been the “next big thing” for at least seven or eight years running. But it has yet to advance beyond the niche industrial and enthusiast markets. One of the main issues is the lack of durable materials. Virtually all 3D printing still uses cheap plastics, which isn’t suitable for long-term use. Meanwhile, 3D printing with metal is expensive and slow. A company called Desktop Metal thinks it can finally take 3D metal printing mainstream with its new system, which is supposed to be both less expensive and more capable.
There was a great deal of mainstream interest in 3D printing a few years back, but that has cooled somewhat. MakerBot, once seen as a leader in consumer 3D printing, was acquired by enterprise 3D printing firm Stratasys. It subsequently closed all its retail locations and stopped making its own printers. You can get a basic 3D printer on Amazon right now for a few hundred dollars, but they don’t do anything different than older printers.
In manufacturing, 3D printing is mostly seen as a prototyping technology, not a way to actually produce things. NASA and various aerospace firms make use of metal printing to create individual components, but these laser-based systems are massive and have limited applications. Desktop Metal plans to offer two versions of its printer; a Studio System that is intended for small engineering groups or companies, and a Production System that’s capable of industrial-scale manufacturing. Desktop Metal says its design for a 3D metal printer is 100 times faster and up to 20 times less expensive than current methods.
The Desktop Metal printers don’t need a supply of hazardous, loose metal powder like laser-based printers do. That means you can put the smaller Studio System in an office environment like a regular 3D printer. The metals are suspended in a polymer binding agent and loaded into the machine via a sealed cartridge. Over 200 alloys are compatible with the system including aluminum, bronze, and titanium.
When printing, the metal is deposited on the build surface as a powder along with the binding agent. The layers are built up, and when it’s all over, the part is washed and heated to remove the binding agent. The finishing takes place in the separate furnace module, with both conventional and microwave heaters bringing the metal to just below its melting point. Where the binding agent burns away, the metal particles fuse with each other to produce a solid piece.
While this system is a lot cheaper than what NASA uses, it’s still not in the budget of your average tinkerer. The studio printer starts at $120,000, and the industrial model will cost $360,000. Well, the first plastic 3D printers were pretty expensive, too. Give it a few years.