3D Printing in Metal: the Laser and Metal Powder Printers We Saw at IMTS

Last week I went to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) and it was incredible. This is a toy store for machinists and showcases the best of industrial automation. But one of the coolest trends I found at the show are all the techniques used to 3D print in metal. The best part is that many of the huge machines on display are actually running!

It’s probably better to refer to this as additive manufacturing, because the actual methods can be significantly different from your 3D printer. Below you’ll find examples of three different approaches to this process. I had a great interview with a company doing actual 3D printing in metal using a nozzle-based delivery often called cladding. There’s a demo video of powder layer printing using lasers. And a technique that uses binders as an intermediary step toward the final metal part. Let’s take a look!

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HP Rolls Out Metal 3D Printers

You normally think of HP as producing inkjet and laser printers. But they’ve been quietly building 3D printers aimed at commercial customers. Now they are moving out with metal printers called — predictably — the HP Metal Jet. The video (see below) is a little glitzy, but the basic idea is that print bars lay down powder on a 21-micron grid. A binding agent prints on the powder, presumably in a similar way to a conventional inkjet printer. A heat source then evaporates the liquid from the binder.

The process repeats for each layer until you remove the part and then sinter it using a third-party oven-like device. According to HP, their technique has more uniform material properties than fusing the powder on the bed with a laser. They also claim to be much faster than metal injection molding.

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A Machinist’s Foray Into Jewelry Making

Machinists are expected to make functional items from stock material, at least hat’s the one-line job description even though it glosses over many important details. [Eclix] wanted a birthday gift for his girlfriend that wasn’t just jewelry, indeed he wanted jewelry made with his own hands. After all, nothing in his skillset prohibits him from making beautiful things. He admits there were mistakes, but in the end, he came up with a recipe for two pairs of earrings, one set with sapphires and one with diamonds.

He set the gems in sterling silver which was machined to have sockets the exact diameter and depth of the stones. The back end of the rods were machined down to form the post for the clutch making each earring a single piece of metal and a single gemstone. Maintaining a single piece also eliminates the need for welding or soldering which is messy according to the pictures.

This type of cross-discipline skill is one of the things that gives Hackaday its variety. In that regard, consider the art store for your hacking needs and don’t forget the humble library.

3D Printing Metal in Mid Air

Published only 3 days before our article on how it is high time for direct metal 3D printers, the folks at Harvard have mastered 3D metal printing in midair with no support (as well as time travel apparently). Because it hardens so quickly, support isn’t necessary, and curves, sharp angles, and sophisticated shapes are possible.

The material is silver nanoparticles extruded out of a nozzle, and shortly after leaving it is blasted with a carefully programmed laser that solidifies the material. The trick is that the laser can’t focus on the tip of the nozzle or else heat transfer would solidify the ink inside the nozzle and clog it. In the video you can see the flash from the laser following slightly behind. The extrusion diameter is thinner than a hair, so don’t expect to be building large structures with this yet.

If you want big metal 3D printing, you should probably stick to the welders attached to robotic arms.

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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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Printing In Metal with a MIG Welder

Whenever the question of metal 3D printers comes up, someone always chimes in that a MIG welder connected to a normal 3D printer would work great. A bit of research would tell this person that’s already been done, but some confirmation and replication is nice. A few students at TU Delft University strapped a welder to a normal, off-the-shelf 3D printer and made a few simple shapes.

This project builds on the work of [Joshua Pearce] et al. at Michigan Tech where an MIG welder and delta bot was used to lay down rather complex shapes on a metal plate substrate. The team at TU Delft used a cartesian bot – a Prusa i3 – for their replication because of the sheer mass of moving a metal build plate, firebricks, and welder around.

In the first few prints on their machine, the team was able to lay down enough metal to build a vertical wall. It’s not much, and to turn this into a finished part would require some machining, but these are only the beginning steps of what could become a legitimate way of creating metal parts. Video below.

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