It’s Time For Direct Metal 3D-Printing

It’s tough times for 3D-printing. Stratasys got burned on Makerbot, trustful backers got burned on the Peachy Printer meltdown, I burned my finger on a brand new hotend just yesterday, and that’s only the more recent events. In recent years more than a few startups embarked on the challenge of developing a piece of 3D printing technology that would make a difference. More colors, more materials, more reliable, bigger, faster, cheaper, easier to use. There was even a metal 3D printing startup, MatterFab, which pulled off a functional prototype of a low-cost metal-powder-laser-melting 3D printer, securing $13M in funding, and disappearing silently, poof.

This is just the children’s corner of the mall, and the grown-ups have really just begun pulling out their titanium credit cards. General Electric is on track to introduce 3D printed, FAA-approved fuel nozzles into its aircraft jet engines, Airbus is heading for 3D-printed, lightweight components and interior, and SpaceX has already sent rockets with 3D printed Main Oxidizer Valves (MOV) into orbit, aiming to make the SuperDraco the first fully 3D printed rocket engine. Direct metal 3D printing is transitioning from the experimental research phase to production, and it’s interesting to see how and why large industries, well, disrupt themselves.

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Pewter Casting with PLA

Over on, [bms.had] is showing his technique for 3D printing molds that he uses to cast (lead-free) pewter objects. The process looks simple enough, and if you have a 3D printer, you only need some lead-free pewter, a cheap toaster oven, and PLA filament. He’s made two videos (below) that do an excellent job of showing the steps required.

Even though the pewter is hot enough to melt the PLA, it doesn’t appear to be a major problem if you quench the piece fast enough. According to [bms.had], a slower quench will melt some PLA although that creates a smoother surface. You can see the 0.31 mm layer lines in the cast, though, although you can use any layer height you like to control that. Creating the mold is simple (the videos use Tinkercad, although anything suitable for creating 3D models would work). You essentially attach a funnel to your part and make the entire part a hole inside an enveloping shape.

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Metal 3D Printing with Your Printer

Over in Italy, [Robotfactory] has a new setup called CopperFace that they claim allows you to essentially electroplate 3D printed objects with a metal coating using copper, nickel, silver, or gold.

We’ve talked about electroplating on plastic before, but that technique required mixing graphite and acetone. The CopperFace kit uses a conductive graphite spray and claims it deposits about 1 micron of plating on the object every two minutes.

We couldn’t help but wonder if the graphite spray is just the normal stuff used for lubricant. While the CopperFace’s electroplating tech seems pretty standard (copper sulfate and copper/phosphorus electrodes), we also wondered if some of the simpler copper acetate process we’ve covered before might be workable.

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3D Printing With Metal… At Home!

[Bam] from the LulzBot forums  has successfully printed metal using his 3D printer and a Budaschnozzle 1.1 hot end. Well, solder to be specific — but it’s still pretty awesome!

He’s making use of 3mm solder purchased from McMaster (76805a61), which has a blend of 95.8% tin, 4% copper and 0.2% silver. It took quite a few tries to get it extruding properly, and even now it seems to only be able to print about 15mm before jamming up — a more specific hot end with a larger thermal mass might help. He plans on trying a thinner filament (1.75mm) as it might help to keep it at the proper extrusion temperature, which in this case is around 235C.

During our research we found another user from the RepRap blog who has also been experimenting with printing low-melt point alloys — and he’s even successfully created an Arduino compatible Sanguino board using the printer!

If you want to try this yourself, you’ll need a nozzle you don’t care about, bored out to about 1mm — any smaller and it won’t extrude at all. Be warned though, the solder will corrode brass and aluminum, and [Bam] notes that after going through 1lb of solder, the nozzle was closer to 2mm in diameter when he was done! Oh and for the love of hacking — use ventilation!

Stick around after the break to watch a video on a professional version of this system — which is essentially a repurposed welding robot, using electron beam direct manufacturing. These technologies can’t make nicely finished parts, but they excel when considering they can make near net-weight parts, requiring only a small amount of machining to finish.

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