The Metal 3D Printing Hack Chat Brings The Heat

At this point, it’s safe to say the novelty of desktop 3D printing has worn off. The community has largely come to terms with the limitations of extruded plastics, and while we still vehemently believe that it’s a transformative technology, we’ll admit there aren’t too many applications where a $200 USD printer squirting out PLA is truly the best tool for the job.

But rather than looking at today’s consumer 3D printer market as the end of the line, what if it’s just the beginning? With the problems of slicing, motion control, and extrusion more or less solved when it comes to machines that print in plastic, is it finally time to turn our attention to the unique problems inherent in building affordable metal printers? Agustin Cruz certainly thinks so, which is why he took to the Hack Chat this week to talk about his personal vision for an open source 3D printer that can turn powdered metals into solid objects by way of a carefully controlled electron beam.

To be clear, Agustin isn’t suggesting you toss out your Creality anytime soon. Metal 3D printing will always be a niche within a niche, but for applications where even advanced engineering plastics like PEI and PEEK simply won’t do, he argues the community needs to have a cheap and accessible option. Especially for developing and low income countries where traditional manufacturing may be difficult. The machine he’s been working on wouldn’t be outside the capabilities of an individual to build and operate, but at least for right now the primary target is hospitals, colleges, and small companies.

The Chat was full of technical questions about Agustin’s design, and he wasn’t shy about tackling them. Some wondered why he decided to sinter the metal powder with an electron gun when solid-state lasers are cheap, easily available, and relatively straightforward to work with. But while the laser might seem like the easier solution on the surface, Agustin points out that using a magnetically focused electron beam gives his printer some unique capabilities.

For example, he can easily defocus the beam and pass it over the entire build plate to pre-heat the powder. The steerable beam doesn’t require mirrors either, which not only reduces the weight and complexity of the machine, but in theory should allow for faster print speeds. The beam can be moved in the X/Y dimensions with an accuracy of 0.01 mm, and while the beam diameter is currently a respectable 0.5 mm, Agustin says he’s working on bringing that down to 0.1 mm for high detail work. The temperature at the focal point of the beam is between 1,400 and 1,500 °C, which he notes is not only hot enough to melt the powdered metal, but can also weld stainless steel.

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Getting Closer To Metal 3D Printing

Most of our 3D printers lay down molten plastic or use photosensitive resin. But professional printers often use metal powder, laying out a pattern and then sintering it with a laser. [Metal Matters] is trying to homebrew a similar system (video, embedded below). And while not entirely successful, the handful of detailed progress videos are interesting to watch. We particularly enjoyed the latest installment (the second video, below) which showed solutions to some of the problems.

Because of the complexity of the system, there are small tidbits of interest even if you don’t want to build a metal printer. For example, in the most recent video, a CCD camera gives up its sensor to detect the laser’s focus.

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3D Printing Damascus-like Steel

Recreating Damascus steel remains a holy grail of materials science. The exact process and alloys used are long ago lost to time. At best, modern steelworking methods are able to produce a rough visual simulacra of sorts that many still consider to be pretty cool looking. Taking a more serious bent at materials science than your average knifemaker, a group of scientists at the Max Planck institute have been working to create a material with similar properties through 3D printing.

The technology used is based on the laser sintering of metal powders. In this case, the powder consists of a mixture of iron, nickel and titanium. The team found that by varying the exact settings of the laser sintering process on a layer-by-layer basis, they could create different microstructures throughout a single part. This allows the creation of parts that are ductile, while remaining hard enough to be sharpened – a property which is useful in edged weapons like swords.

While the process is nothing like that used by smiths in Damascus working with Wootz steel, the general idea of a metal material with varying properties throughout remains the same. For those eager to get into old-school metalwork, consider our articles on blacksmithing. For those interested in materials research, head to a good university. Or, better yet – do both!

[Thanks to Itay for the tip, via New Atlas]

Null Shard Build Blurs Line Between Game And Reality With Laser Cutting, Mold Making, 3D Printing

In The Room Three, players are tasked with collecting mysterious objects known as “Null Shards”. But it seems one player, who goes by the name [Juiceman], took this challenge a bit literally. Starting with promotional art released for the game, he embarked on an epic journey to create a replica “Null Shard” that ended up looking so good that one of them is currently residing in a place of honor at the headquarters of developer Fireproof Games.

The developers had previously released image files to create a papercraft version of the Null Shard on their website, so [Juiceman] based his initial CAD work on these designs. But it turned out the surface texture was a little too complex to laser etch into acrylic without making a soupy mess. He simplified it a bit, while trying to retain the overall effect. From the superb laser-etched acrylic master he made a silicone mold started casting the eight triangular panels needed for two copies of the Shard.

To hold it all together [Juiceman] create a “skeleton” pyramid by first experimenting with designs on a traditional plastic FDM printer. After a few tries he had a workable design and switched over to a laser sintering machine, giving the final frame a gorgeous texture. With the cast panels installed and a few coats of paint, he had his Null Shards.

The final step was to turn down a piece of ash to make a nice base, and 3D print the feet and “claw” mount for the Shard using the same laser sintering process. The finished product looks fantastic, and apparently lives on a shelf next to a similarly constructed replica of the “Lament Configuration” puzzle cube from the Hellraiser films. [Juiceman] says the two replicas are the first entries into his “Geometries of Hell” collection, which incidentally, we’ve decided will officially be the name of our first metal album. All we need to do now is learn how to play instruments.

We’ve previously looked at how 3D printing and a dash of dedication can create some incredible prop builds, and once upon a time, we even ran a Sci-Fi Contest that challenged our readers to bring their favorite movie and game objects into the real world. Builds like this are a perfect example of what happens when a dedicated hacker or maker gets inspired by a piece of entertainment that really resonates with them.

[Thanks to Lauren for the tip]

Relativity Space’s Quest To 3D Print Entire Rockets

While the jury is still out on 3D printing for the consumer market, there’s little question that it’s becoming a major part of next generation manufacturing. While we often think of 3D printing as a way to create highly customized one-off objects, that’s a conclusion largely based on how we as individuals use the technology. When you’re building something as complex as a rocket engine, the true advantage of 3D printing is the ability to not only rapidly iterate your design, but to produce objects with internal geometries that would be difficult if not impossible to create with traditional tooling.

SpaceX’s SuperDraco 3D Printed Engine

So it’s no wonder that key “New Space” players like SpaceX and Blue Origin make use of 3D printed components in their vehicles. Even NASA has been dipping their proverbial toe in the additive manufacturing waters, testing printed parts for the Space Launch System’s RS-25 engine. It would be safe to say that from this point forward, most of our exploits off of the planet’s surface will involve additive manufacturing in some capacity.

But one of the latest players to enter the commercial spaceflight industry, Relativity Space, thinks we can take the concept even farther. Not content to just 3D print rocket components, founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone believe the entire rocket can be printed. Minus electrical components and a few parts which operate in extremely high stress environments such as inside the pump turbines, Relativity Space claims up to 95% of their rocket could eventually be produced with additive manufacturing.

If you think 3D printing a rocket sounds implausible, you aren’t alone. It’s a bold claim, so far the aerospace industry has only managed to print relatively small rocket engines; so printing an entire vehicle would be an exceptionally large leap in capability. But with talent pulled from major aerospace players, a recently inked deal for a 20 year lease on a test site at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and access to the world’s largest metal 3D printer, they’re certainly going all in on the idea. Let’s take a look at what they’ve got planned.

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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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Formlabs Announces A Desktop SLS 3D Printer

Formlabs have just announced the Fuse 1 — a selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer that creates parts out of nylon. Formlabs is best known for their Form series of resin-based SLA 3D printers, and this represents a very different direction.

SLS printers, which use a laser to sinter together models out of a powder-based material, are not new but have so far remained the domain of Serious Commercial Use. To our knowledge, this is the first time an actual SLS printer is being made available to the prosumer market. At just under 10k USD it’s definitely the upper end of the prosumer market, but it’s certainly cheaper than the alternatives.

The announcement is pretty light on details, but they are reserving units for a $1000 deposit. A few things we can throw in about the benefits of SLS: it’s powder which is nicer to clean up than resin printers, and parts should not require any kind of curing. The process also requires no support material as the uncured powder will support any layers being cured above it. The Fuse 1’s build chamber is 165 x 165 x 320 mm, and can be packed full of parts to make full use of the volume.

In the past we saw a detailed teardown of the Form 2 which revealed excellent workmanship and attention to detail. Let’s hope the same remains true of Formlabs’ newest offering.