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?
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.
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
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