Usually, we're telling you about bigger 3D printer build volumes, not smaller ones. But this is a bit different. Optomec has taken a highly sophisticated 3D printing process for metals and made it available in a smaller machine.
Engineers have been producing metal components, not just prototypes, for several years using Optomec's version of selective laser sintering (SLS), which the company calls LENS (Laser Engineered Net Shaping). The components built have been relatively large, with a process work envelope of 900 mm x 1,500 mm x 900 mm (35.43 inch x 59.0 inch x 35.43 inch) for the company's largest machine, the 850-R. That one deposits material such as standard steels, titanium, and nickel alloys at up to 500 g/hr (1.1 lb/hr).
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Optomec's original, large 850-R system is used for making final production parts or prototypes, and repairing metallic components, such as this casing. (Source: Optomec)
Optomec says that for many applications the mechanical properties of components built with the process are equivalent to those of wrought metals. For example, independent testing has shown that the fatigue strength of Ti 6-4 matches the fatigue strength of wrought annealed material. Yield strength and tensile strength of the 3D-printed material were actually better at 973 MPa and 1077 MPa versus 834 MPa and 973 MPa, respectively, for Ti-6Al-4V, a titanium/aluminum alloy. Among other things, Ti-6Al-4V alloys are used for structural components on commercial aircraft.
Originally developed at Sandia National Laboratories, the LENS process has been used for prototyping and manufacturing military and aerospace components, as well as medical instruments and implants. It can be used for adding layers of metals to an existing component to improve its wear resistance, or add features to large cast components, such as a flange or boss. The process has also been optimized for repairing military and aerospace metallic components, such as restoring their inner diameters or inside blind holes. (Watch a video demonstrating the process below.)
The new machine, the LENS 450, is built with the same basic technology, but it has a much smaller process work envelope of 100 mm x 100 mm x 100 mm (3.94 inch x 3.94 inch x 3.94 inch). It also has a much slower (about 6.25 times slower) maximum deposition rate of 80 g/hr (2.82 oz/hr). It comes with a 400W fiber laser, a motion control system, and proprietary process control and part preparation software. The machine prints titanium, stainless steel, cobalt chrome, and superalloys.
So why would anyone want one of these? Interestingly, Optomec says it has developed this model to help proliferate the use of metals in additive manufacturing. The company is aiming the printer at university mechanical and materials engineering departments and labs, for the purpose of training the next generation of engineers in AM, and specifically, AM with metals.
The first machine will be delivered to the University of Pittsburgh's department of mechanical engineering and materials science, for use in the department's advanced manufacturing program. The university is a member of the federally sponsored National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). Wouldn't it be interesting if this became a trend?
I wonder if this isn't possibly the beginning of a trend: 3D printer manufacturers making smaller versions of their machines with smaller build volumes that still can use complex 3D printing technologies. This one's aimed at a the growing number of AM labs in various universities for R&D, but also to train the next generation of engineers in the technology. And the fact that this university is a member of NAMII, which aims to bring together academia, government agencies and commercial interests to further the technology, seems significant to me. What do others think?
This smaller printer would be useful for model builders (including model engines) if the price is right. Of course, 3D service bureaus would be an option. I see news today that Stratasys plans to grow by acquiring companies that make 3D metals printers.
78RPM makes an interesting point about metals printers and service bureaus. Right now, these machines/processes and their materials are probably way too pricey for that. They were developed to serve high-end applications in industrial, military and aerospace markets, so pricing is on a very different scale from anything aimed at consumers. This is an important point to keep in mind about 3D printing/AM--there are two very different ends of the industry.
@Ann – All technology comes at a high price most of the time, later when there is competition in the market the manufacturers are forced to bring down the prices for the product to survive in the market.
Yes, but...prices coming down as volumes go up doesn't usually happen as fast in the industrial/commercial sector as it does in consumer products, and especially as it does in electronics. We've have all been trained to think in terms of high-volume consumer electronics, and that model simply doesn't apply to non-electronic, non-consumer products, technologies and markets.
@78RPM - Yes model builders will definitely find this very useful; it helps them save their time. Now it's just a matter of designing the 3D model and the printer will do the rest for you, whereas sometime back you need to craft the object.
When the only fast modeling choice was SLAs and the equipment to do them was expensive, service companies jumped in.
When more technologies came along (SLS, etc.) they upgraded first and offered more services.
There surely is a spot where the same companies offering proto plastic parts etc. will jump in and offer metal parts, before the use of the machines becomes widespread.
We are a long way from an SLS printer on every desktop, so there is plenty of room in the market.
I've been critical of all the loose uses of definitions of 3D printing to the point it has become an overused buzz term. Trade press has glorified misguided attempts to "go to production" becuase everyone is so excited. Well, printing Ti that is as good or better than a cast and annealed part makes it for real. There are definitely applications for either proof of design, early entry into validation (think of all the things you need to validate in automotive or aerospace that require "production intent" parts), or one or a few offs (say, F1 race teams, satellite builders, the LHC, etc.--big budget, only need 1 or 10, would like to be able to change late, etc.).
This one has my vote--the price will be determined by the market.
eafpres, thanks for your comments. I agree, SLS printers for metals (there are also versions used with plastics) will not be available anytime soon for small jobs and prototyping. That said, I reported this precisely because it shows that metal production parts are possible and actually being achieved, something that many people don't yet believe, probably because they think 3D printing means applications like making your own plastic jewelry.
It's important to remember that the technology for SLS with metals and with plastic is not the same, so it's not a matter of a 3D printer company using one line of printers for either materials set. It's also a really different expertise set. So far, plastic-based companies like Stratasys are partnering with metals-based companies like Optomec, and 3D Systems has bought the expertise.
eafpres, I had a similar experience after writing my first metals 3D printing article several months ago: it seemed like suddenly I saw media coverage of similar manufacturers everywhere. Of course, there are always way more service bureaus than manufacturers of the technology. Good to know the service bureaus are available.
@Ann - all devices come in small sizes with same or better performance, I think the same concept applies here. 3D printer manufacturers making smaller versions of their machines with smaller build volumes that still can use complex 3D printing technologies
Aside from where the technology came from, the other big difference here is the materials. This is metals, not plastics. They are not made for consumer applications, not likely available in small quantities, and sure as heck aren't cheap.
This isn't the start of a trend, in the true definition of the word. I've mentioned here before that MIT is working on digitizing materials and assemblage as the next generation of AM and 3D technology.
It's a progression of a much larger trend. How soon will we be able to say "Tea, Earl Grey hot" in a posh British accent and have it appear? I don't know....
(I'm pretty sure that EVERYONE here gets the Star Trek reference)
The possible trend I asked a rhetorical question about was very specific: whether makers of high-end, industrial metals 3D printing machines would release smaller, simpler versions for universities, as this company has. Whether they will or not--and whether this therefore becomes a trend--remains to be seen. Regarding MIT's work, the link you gave goes to another comment you made, but not to MIT's work. Can you give us links to their work?
Nadine, I googled "MIT digital materials" and came up with several links that seem to be talking about LEGO-like "printing", although it looks more like assembly to me. At the micron level described in a 2009 paper http://cba.mit.edu/docs/papers/06.09.digital_materials.pdf one might be able to call this "digital assembly," but at larger scales that terms seems misleading. Is this what you were referring to?
In any case, it seems to be related to self-assembled and self-reconfigurable devices and materials, on several scales, which DN covered here: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138 and which I find much more compelling.
NadineJ -- I think the "more compelling" concept is a matter of timeline. The MIT papers do like digital assembly similar to Lego blocks. An article in Wired in recent months discussed a method being used to construct skyscrapers in China in two weeks using a modular approach.
We have seen the open software approach be applied to hardware in the Arduino and BeagleBone and the modular shields we stack upon them. Xerox PARC has done work on 3D printing of circuit boards. These concepts are making traction in the marketplace already.
Ann's earlier article http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138 seems to be more futuristic where objects act like (maybe become?) living organisms and adapt their shape and purpose to the environmental need at hand. Science fiction such as the Transformers movies always inspires invention of the future.
78RPM, the self-assembly and self-reconfiguring concepts in my other article are definitely more futuristic. OTOH, this Transformer-like robot is pretty here and now, if still small: http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=256018
I want one of those Transformers. I've seen other Design News articles about robotic snakes and the like. It will be really useful when snake robots can crawl through small spaces, then reconfigure to lift a fallen piece of concrete rubble or take out a firehose or whatever the need is. The future is really being invented very fast, isn't it?
78RPM, those snake and worm robots are fun, aren't they? The idea of their self-reconfiguration ability makes them even more interesting. And yes, things are moving awfully fast in these design areas. It often feels like the future is already here.
What I found more compelling was the concept of self-assembly and self-reconfiguration, rather than the lego-like MIT digital materials in the link I gave before: http://cba.mit.edu/docs/papers/06.09.digital_materials.pdf Was this the MIT digital materials you referred to? If not, can you tell us what you were referring to?
Nadine, to clarify again, I don't find my article more compelling, I find the concepts discussed in it of self-assembling and self-reconfiguring robots and methods more compelling than the lego-like so-called "digital materials" in the MIT paper. Anyway, too bad what you heard about isn't findable anywhere online. If you ever do find links, please let us know. It sounds a bit like MIT's so-called 4D printing, which is actually self-assembly combined with 3D printing. I wrote about that here: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=260118
I'm reluctant to plug a commercial service, but have any of you looked at www.shapeways.com? It's an online 3D printing service where you can upload STL files and they mail you your part - in an amazing variety of available materials. I recently had a camera part made in stainless steel for a fraction of just the material cost to make it by machining from bar stock. There may be other similar things out there, but this is the one I've happened to come across.
@David – I think we should give it few more days for the product to establish its self in the market and automatically the prices will fluctuate with the competition. I am sure it would not be a monopoly or oligopoly, as there are many manufactures waiting to enter into the market.
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