3D Printing

100x faster, 10x cheaper: 3D metal printing is about to go mainstream

100x faster, 10x cheaper: 3D m...
Sintering Multiple Parts – Desktop Metal’s Studio System includes a fully-automated, office-friendly sintering furnace with fast cycle times and a peak temperature of 1400°C, allowing for the sintering of a wide variety of materials.
Sintering Multiple Parts – Desktop Metal’s Studio System includes a fully-automated, office-friendly sintering furnace with fast cycle times and a peak temperature of 1400°C, allowing for the sintering of a wide variety of materials.
View 14 Images
1/14
Sintering Multiple Parts – Desktop Metal’s Studio System includes a fully-automated, office-friendly sintering furnace with fast cycle times and a peak temperature of 1400°C, allowing for the sintering of a wide variety of materials.
2/14
Sintering Multiple Parts – Desktop Metal’s Studio System includes a fully-automated, office-friendly sintering furnace with fast cycle times and a peak temperature of 1400°C, allowing for the sintering of a wide variety of materials.
Complex metal propeller, coarsely prototyped in the Desktop Metal studio system
3/14
Complex metal propeller, coarsely prototyped in the Desktop Metal studio system
DM Co-Founders: Desktop Metal co-founders (front left to right: CEO Ric Fulop, A. John Hart, Jonah Myerberg; standing left to right: Yet Ming-Chiang, Chris Schuh, Ely Sachs, Rick Chin)
4/14
DM Co-Founders: Desktop Metal co-founders (front left to right: CEO Ric Fulop, A. John Hart, Jonah Myerberg; standing left to right: Yet Ming-Chiang, Chris Schuh, Ely Sachs, Rick Chin)
Desktop Metal Studio system: massively more affordable, office-safe and practical than an equivalent laser system
5/14
Desktop Metal Studio system: massively more affordable, office-safe and practical than an equivalent laser system
Separable Supports Removal (hand) – Proprietary Separable Supports make it possible to remove support structures by hand.
6/14
Separable Supports Removal (hand) – Proprietary Separable Supports make it possible to remove support structures by hand.
DM Studio System Cartridges – Easily swappable print cartridges make for safe, fast material changes.
7/14
DM Studio System Cartridges – Easily swappable print cartridges make for safe, fast material changes.
Cast side by side – (right) A yoke for a brake assembly produced with the DM Studio System as a replacement part for heavy machinery and (left) the original part that was cast and machined.
8/14
Cast side by side – (right) A yoke for a brake assembly produced with the DM Studio System as a replacement part for heavy machinery and (left) the original part that was cast and machined.
Desktop Metal production system. Each printer (left) runs so fast it needs up to four hybrid furnaces for sintering
9/14
Desktop Metal production system. Each printer (left) runs so fast it needs up to four hybrid furnaces for sintering
Bound metal rods, used in the Desktop Metal Studio system, are cheap and safe to handle.
10/14
Bound metal rods, used in the Desktop Metal Studio system, are cheap and safe to handle.
Separable Supports Close-up – Close-up image of printed part showing proprietary Separable Supports layer
11/14
Separable Supports Close-up – Close-up image of printed part showing proprietary Separable Supports layer
Sintering Pump Housing - This metal 3D printed pump housing part is sintered in the Desktop Metal furnace that can reach temperatures as high as 1400°C.
12/14
Sintering Pump Housing - This metal 3D printed pump housing part is sintered in the Desktop Metal furnace that can reach temperatures as high as 1400°C.
High quality part after sintering
13/14
High quality part after sintering
Desktop Metal studio system: an order of magnitude cheaper than equivalent laser systems
14/14
Desktop Metal studio system: an order of magnitude cheaper than equivalent laser systems

Desktop Metal – remember the name. This Massachussetts company is preparing to turn manufacturing on its head, with a 3D metal printing system that's so much faster, safer and cheaper than existing systems that it's going to compete with traditional mass manufacturing processes.

We've been hearing for years now about 3D printing and how it's going to revolutionize manufacturing. As yet, though, it's still on the periphery.

Plenty of design studios and even home users run desktop printers, but the only affordable printing materials are cheap ABS plastics. And at the other end of the market, while organizations like NASA and Boeing are getting valuable use out of laser-melted metal printing, it's a very slow and expensive process that doesn't seem to scale well.

But a very exciting company out of Massachusetts, headed by some of the guys who came up with the idea of additive manufacture in the first place, believes it's got the technology and the machinery to boost 3D printing into the big time, for real.

Desktop Metal

Desktop Metal is an engineering-driven startup whose founders include several MIT professors, and Emanuel Sachs, who has patents in 3D printing dating back to the dawn of the field in 1989.

The company has raised a ton of money in the last few months, including some US$115 million in a recent Series D round that brings total equity investments up over US$210 million. That money has come from big players, too, including Google Ventures.

The hype is real. And if Desktop Metal delivers on its promises – that it can make reliable metal printing up to 100 times faster, with 10 times cheaper initial costs and 20 times cheaper materials costs than existing laser technologies, using a much wider range of alloys – these machines might be the tipping point for large scale 3D manufacturing.

The company is putting forward two systems: a studio system aimed at rapid, cheap metal prototyping for engineering groups, and a production system for mass manufacture.

Desktop Metal Studio system: massively more affordable, office-safe and practical than an equivalent laser system
Desktop Metal Studio system: massively more affordable, office-safe and practical than an equivalent laser system

The Studio System: Rapid prototyping

Coming in at some 10 times cheaper than equivalent laser systems, Desktop Metal's Studio machines are also a ton more practical to have in an office. Without hazardous (and sometimes explosive) metal powders to deal with, or dangerous lasers, you can stick them pretty much anywhere without needing to install ventilation or make your workers wear respirators.

Indeed, having the Studio system around is much more like a regular old FDM (fused deposition modeling) ABS plastic printer than any other metal printing machine. It's very low maintenance and requires no special support equipment or staff.

The metals arrive in rod form, bound to a polymer binding agent and shipped in cartridges. But there's a ton of metal options – basically anything you can use in a Metal Injection Molding (MIM) system. That includes 4140 chromoly steel, aluminum, copper, bronze, a range of stainless steels, Hiperco 50 magnetic, titanium, and more than 200 other alloys.

DM Studio System Cartridges – Easily swappable print cartridges make for safe, fast material changes.
DM Studio System Cartridges – Easily swappable print cartridges make for safe, fast material changes.

The Studio printer runs around and prints parts into layers of bound metal. The parts then go into a de-binding bath that removes a good portion of the binding polymer, and then the parts go into a sintering furnace.

The furnace is the special sauce in the Desktop Metal process. It uses a combination of regular heating elements and microwave heating to bring the part up to a temperature just below its melting point, where the binding agent burns off and the metal particles within fuse to their neighbors to produce a highly dense, sintered metal.

Sintering Pump Housing - This metal 3D printed pump housing part is sintered in the Desktop Metal furnace that can reach temperatures as high as 1400°C.
Sintering Pump Housing - This metal 3D printed pump housing part is sintered in the Desktop Metal furnace that can reach temperatures as high as 1400°C.

Timing and temperature are managed automatically by the system, depending on the design and the metals you've used. Parts also shrink up to 15 percent during the debinding and sintering process – but again, that's all automatically managed by the system. All you need to do is feed in the end design and all that business is handled.

At the end of the process, you basically poke out the support sections with a screwdriver. They're not welded to the part, and in many cases can be broken off by hand.

Depending on the nature of the part, it might be necessary to do some post-print surface finishing like sanding or bead blasting to smooth out the layered surfaces, but effectively you're left with a prototype part, produced quickly, in the production material and ready for testing. And parts are around 99.8 percent dense, which is huge. They're very mechanically tough.

Separable Supports Removal (hand) – Proprietary Separable Supports make it possible to remove support structures by hand.
Separable Supports Removal (hand) – Proprietary Separable Supports make it possible to remove support structures by hand.

The Studio system makes rapid, affordable metal prototyping much more accessible than ever before, using a huge range of cheap, safe and easily handled materials and producing high-quality parts that can be tested properly. The entire integrated system and associated software retails for US$120,000, where an equivalent laser system will run you more than US$1 million – and that doesn't take into account the safety and materials handling overheads the laser systems require.

That's a massive step forward in prototyping, and the Studio system will begin shipping this year. But the production system, which will debut in 2018, is where the real revolution could lie.

Desktop Metal production system. Each printer (left) runs so fast it needs up to four hybrid furnaces for sintering
Desktop Metal production system. Each printer (left) runs so fast it needs up to four hybrid furnaces for sintering

The Production System: Mass manufacture

The production system is built for speed, to a degree that has never been seen before. Faster than machining, casting, forging or any other technique, each production printer can produce up to an incredible 500 cubic inches of complex parts per hour. That's 100 times quicker than a laser-based alternative, with zero tooling.

Indeed, it prints faster than those hybrid microwave furnaces can sinter. To reach the full production speed, you'll need up to four furnaces per printer.

The Production printers use a different process called Single Pass Jetting, explained in the video below.

Desktop Metal Production System is about to take 3D printing into the mainstream

Instead of bound metal rod cartridges like the Studio printer uses, the Production machines use powders, which are bonded together during printing by spray-jetted droplets of a binder solution. They use regular, low-cost, easily available MIM powders. That's another huge advantage over laser machines, which need expensive powders with very precise particle sizes. Material costs here will be up to 20 times lower.

This, combined with the lack of tooling and job setup costs, can bring 3D printed metal parts down cheap enough to compete with traditional manufacturing processes for the first time.

The rest of the process – de-binding and sintering – looks much the same as the Studio system. Print resolution is as fine as 50 microns, roughly the width of a human hair. And while no final pricing has been given yet on the full system, each printer will retail for around US$360,000.

It's hard to overstate what a leap forward the Desktop Metal system represents. It's orders of magnitude faster than the current state of the art. It uses vastly cheaper materials that already exist in commercial quantities thanks to Metal Injection Molding. And the printers themselves are massively cheaper, too.

It's safe, simple and highly automated, and it's designed to make 3D printing as cost-effective as traditional manufacturing. It could be the tipping point that opens the door to radical 3D-printed design elements in mass market products.

This could be huge, folks. Hold on tight!

More information: Desktop Metal

16 comments
nedge2k
THIS is the future we've been waiting for. Will be interesting to see how this impacts the foundry and CNC industry in 10-20yrs. The CNC manufacturers could do with a good kick up the arse - they've been gouging people for decades.
Mzungu_Mkubwa
My company utilizes a lot of cast aluminum components in their products, and have spent the past years "moving" the sourcing of these to Chinese suppliers. With recent efforts to revitalize U.S. manufacturing (e.g. the recent Walmart initiative to shift this sourcing back state-side) this tech could provide significant underpinnings to allow this, at least in the industry it serves. Bring casting sourcing back to American suppliers, but shifted to this far more advantageous methodology. Our leadership would be smart to "quarantine" this tech to preserve the head-start advantage over the global competition.
MK23666
Goodbye high wage jobs ... hello, Guaranteed Minimum Income.
tob
How can something by 10X cheaper? presumbly 1X cheaper is zero cost. The author probably means at 10% of the cost.
Bruce H. Anderson
I do believe this is kinda HUGE!
vqsteve
This is exciting - not just for manufacturers, but retailers as well. Think auto parts stores. Why carry inventory (at the store or "next day" in some regional warehouse) when that part could be printed locally? Smaller stores, cheaper rent, parts only a CAD drawing away. Combine metal printing, thermoplastic FDM and 3D printed circuitry with robot assembly and yes, we may need to consider guaranteed minimum income. As nedge2k says, THIS is the future we've been waiting for. Very exciting! In the back of my mind, though, I hear Chinese political leaders saying, "What are we going to do with all these workers of ours whose jobs are now automated? . . . . Oh, yes, the United States owes us a great deal of money. Let's collect on it."
over_there
i wouldnt get to excited 15% shrinkage is huge, althought they can offset it with software a fair bit it will still be a long way off the laser types. There would also be distortion with the shrinking and the end product will be weak. I find it hard to see any point. 3d printing is never going to replace casting or cnc except in some very specific cases.
roary
Just wait until they stick you with the price of those printer cartridges... Not to mention all the headache of getting one of those set up, amiright?
Grunchy
Nice - lowers the cost and raises the quality appreciably. Post-machining will still be necessary for datum surfaces, precision bores, etc. But there is a huge number of parts that will be ready to use as-prototyped. I will definitely be sending business to such vendors as they come available. The real beauty of such rapid prototyping is that parts will no longer necessarily be EOL, if you don't want. I have a Dodge that turned 30 years old and I have to scrounge spares from the junk yard. With such technology available I could replace almost anything, and conceivably design and fabricate my own aftermarket parts such as suspension, brakes, heads, etc. This will lower the barrier of entry for a lot of creative individuals to a lot of industries.
dougspair
...I'd like more explanation of how those little 'rods' in the print cartridge....get sprayed onto the substrate...?