Maybe You Can Print in Metal

Let’s face it. Printing in plastic is old hat. It is fun. It is useful. But it isn’t really all that exotic anymore. The real dream is to print using metal. There are printers that handle metal in different ways, but they aren’t usually practical for the conventional hacker. Even a “cheap” metal printer costs over $100,000. But there are ways you can almost get there with a pretty garden-variety printer.

There’s no shortage of people mixing things into PLA filament. If you have a metal hot end and don’t mind wearing out nozzles, you can get PLA filament with various percentages of metal powder in it. You can get filament that is 50% to 85% metal and produce things that almost seem like they are made from metals.

[Beau Jackson] recently had a chance to experiment with a metal-bearing filament that has a unique twist. Virtual Foundry’s Filamet has about 10% PLA. The remaining material is copper. Not only do you have to print the material hot, but you have to print it slow (it is much denser than standard PLA). If it were just nearly 90% metal, that would be impressive, but nothing too exciting.  The real interesting part is what you can do after the print is complete. (If you don’t want to read, you can always skip to the videos, below.)

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3D Printing Metal from Rust

It seems backwards, but engineers from Northwestern University have made 3D printing metal easier (and eventually cheaper) by adding extra production steps to the procedure. (Paper available in PDF).

Laser sintering works by laying down a thin layer of metal powder and then hitting it with a strong enough laser to sinter the particles together. (Sintering sticks the grains together without getting the metal hot enough to melt it.) The rapid local heating and cooling required to build up 3D objects expands and cools the metal, and can result in stresses inside the resulting object.

The Northwestern team still lays down layers of powder, but glues the layers together with a quick-drying polymer instead of fusing them with a laser. Once the full model is printed, they then sinter it in one piece in an oven.

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3D-printed copper lattice. Credit: Ramille Shah and David Dunand

The advantages of adding this extra step are higher printing speed — squirting the liquid out of syringe heads can be faster than fusing metal particles with a laser — and increased structural integrity because the whole model is heated and cooled at one time. A fringe benefit is that the model is still a bit flexible before firing, opening up possibilities for printing a flat model and then bending it into shape before sintering.

And if that weren’t enough, the team figured that they’d add a third step to the procedure to allow it to be used with rust (iron oxide) as the starting powder. They print the rust and polymer model, then un-rust the iron using hydrogen, and then fire it as before. Why rust? Do you know anything cheaper to use as a raw material?

What do you think? The basic idea may even be DIYable — glue metal particles together and heat them up enough to stick. Not in my microwave oven, though. We’d love to see a more energy-efficient 3D metal printer.

Thanks to [Joe] for the tip!

New 3D Printing Techniques at AMUG 2015

Sometimes there’s a lot of perks to working for a cutting edge tech company while also being a writer here at Hackaday. This week I had the opportunity to attend AMUG 2015 — the Additive Manufacturing User Group conference in Jacksonville, Florida.

I saw companies big and small, checked out the newest techniques like metal printing and mold making, and met a ton of interesting people. Join me after the break for the rundown and a video summary of my experience.

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3D printing with liquid metals

Gallium

While 3D printers of today are basically limited to plastics and resins, the holy grail of desktop fabrication is printing with metal. While we won’t be printing out steel objects on a desktop printer just yet, [Collin Ladd], [Ju-Hee So], [John Muth], and [Michael D. Dickey] from North Carolina State University are slowly working up to that by printing objects with tiny spheres of liquid metal.

The medium the team is using for their metallic 3D prints is an alloy of 75% gallium and 25% indium. This alloy is liquid at room temperatures, but when exposed to an oxygen atmosphere, a very thin layer of oxide forms on a small metal bead squeezed out of a syringe. Tiny metal sphere by tiny metal sphere, the team can build up metallic objects out of this alloy, stacking the beads into just about any shape imaginable.

In addition to small metal spheres, [Collin] and his team were also able to create free-standing wires that are able to join electrical components. Yes, combined with a pick and place machine, a printer equipped with this technology could make true printed circuit boards.

Even though the team is only working on very small scales with gallium, they do believe this technology could be scaled up to print aluminum. A challenging endeavour, but something that would turn the plastic-squeezing 3D printers of today into something much more like the Star Trek replicators of tomorrow.

Video demo below, or check out [Collin]’s editing room floor and a vimeo channel. Here’s the paper if you’ve got a Wiley subscription.

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