Desktop 3D printers continue to evolve. We take a look at developments in metal desktop systems.
Leslie Langnau, Senior Contributing Editor
Desktop 3D printers have evolved into professional systems for engineers, especially those that work with metal-based materials. Notes Jason Meers, Director of Application Engineering for the Americas at Markforged, “The conversations that we’re having today with design and manufacturing engineers has shifted to making additive manufacturing a fundamental part of their manufacturing operation, whether advancing the capabilities of part and tool production, developing a localized supply chain to reduce cost and increase throughput, or used as a more efficient means of maintenance and repair parts.”
This shift is primarily due to the increased capability of additive manufacturing platforms. Many early AM platforms were mostly designed for use in R&D environments and lacked the capabilities to produce end parts or functional tooling. The primary application was showing proof of concept.
Modern AM platforms, though, are designed for use on the manufacturing floor. “Specifically with our printers,” adds Meers, “the ability to work with strong composite-based materials allows the creation of real-world tooling or end-use parts. You get features like precision, repeatability, accuracy and strength, all the things that you’d expect from your traditional manufacturing tooling.”
Engineers are noticing how desktop additive manufacturing helps localize the supply chain by producing parts inhouse. Beyond the ROI discussion, though, users are looking at the enhanced capabilities that come along with additive manufacturing. Producing parts additively offers an entirely new ruleset.
For example, you can create entirely blind or encapsulated features; produce lighter and stronger parts using industry accepted materials; and consolidate traditional multi-part assemblies. “Gradually, users realize the enhanced capabilities are the next step past just the ROI discussion,” adds Meers.
Having been on the applications engineering team, Meers has seen customer progression. Once customers have used an additive system, they often return with another 10 different applications they’ve identified. One application involved creating a part to replace an existing engine lifter. The lifter moves engines around on cargo ships. The problem was that the tools to produce these big metal lifters were outsourced.
Plus, turnaround time was long and costly. The team at Markforged was able to help this customer redesign the lifter using composite material and fibers to produce a tool in-house in a shorter timeline. The new engine lifter handled the thousand-kilogram engines, but weighed 75% less than the previous lifter. The weight reduction saved thousands of euros a month.
“This was a good example of taking an existing piece, producing it, but also modifying the design for additive manufacturing, adds Meers.
Another example was for a company out of Dresden that produces prototypes and end-use parts. The engineers there were comfortable using composite materials, but the metal parts they were producing were often custom and required much machining. “With our recent launch of copper,” says Meers, “they were the first ones interested in using the material to produce a tool cooler.”
Used in machining, tool coolers keep the head of the tool cool. These are produced out of copper, which is difficult to machine, time-intensive and maintaining dimensions can be hard. “They actually printed out, out of our pure copper, a tool cooler that they were able to bolt up and to use directly. The thing that was most amazing was the data coming back, which was indicating little variation from machining a traditional tool cooler versus 3D printing one.
Markforged’s blend of copper material is proprietary, but it is pure copper according to the ASTM definition. The copper is a filament material loaded via spool into the desktop 3D printer.
Changes in perspective
Even with desktop printers, though, the growth in use hinges on looking at design differently.
“While AM has been around for 30 plus years at this point, the level of maturity it’s come to is seeing use in everyday applications. With that, there’s a next level learning curve that comes in place. This is beyond knowing just roughly how the part is going to come out. It’s ensuring it’s going to come out the same way every time; that you’ve designed it for scale and manufacturing.
“We’ve come up with Markforged University, which is our developed enablement and training platform for end-users of our products. It’s focused on not just learning our printers, materials and software, but also on how to use AM within the real world. A 3D printer is not changing the way that you manufacture, unless you’re figuring out how to use it where it fits in. This is a big part of the enablement and training that we do. We just launched an e-learning platform. Given that e-learning seems to be the way to go for the widest delivery. We’re ensuring everyone has a chance to learn more about, not just what we do, but what our customers are doing and how to do that too.
Advances in technology
Meers sees the future of desktop AM as just beginning. A key focus will be on more materials. “I would say that the biggest ask that I get is, ‘Hey, can you print X?’ X might be a superalloy. It might be looking at another variation of steel for a certain application.”
More metals will be arriving, along with exploring how metals can be combined into hybrid metals.
Working with metal materials in an additive capacity can be challenging because of the combustible nature of the materials. By combining metals with other materials in a filament, Markforged was able to develop a desktop system that engineers could use safely.
“The way that we’ve designed our materials is that they’re packaged much like our composites, into a filament. We’re spinning around filaments, so you’re not having to worry about powder or changeover. You’re able to use multiple materials just by loading and unloading materials. What it resulted in is a metal system that works for everyone, not just those with R&D funding, or those with a lot of spend to go out and build a facility. The important part of that is if it’s easy to use, it also has to be safe to use as well, which led to why we designed the system as it is today.
The interest in additive has changed from a high curve about 15 years ago, to the reality of additive and now beginning to see it mature. As Meers notes, “It’s an exciting time to be in additive.”