The printer, dubbed M-FLEX, has a 400mm x 250mm x 250mm (15.7-inch x 9.8-inch x 9.8-inch) build chamber. This is more than seven times the volume of the company's previous midsized machine, the R2, Larry Voss, ExOne engineering manager, told us. It also achieves speeds of up to 30 seconds per layer, versus previous build speeds of about 90 seconds per layer on the R2. The printer is designed for manufacturing either prototypes or short runs of multiple and/or custom metal parts, for applications in the mining, automotive, and energy industries.
Industrial 3D printing supplier ExOne's M-FLEX midsized metal printer is three times as fast and has a build volume more than seven times as large as the company's previous midsized machine. (Source: ExOne)
ExOne's existing printers include two of the largest available for making 3D printed parts in sand and metal. The S-Max, for printing sand casting molds and cores, has a build volume of 1,800mm x 1,000mm x 700mm (70-inch x 39-inch x 27-inch). The M-Print, for making near-net metal parts, has a build volume of 780mm x 400mm x 400mm (30.7-inch x 15.75-inch x 15.75-inch). The company also sells smaller M-Lab printers for glass and metal parts, with a build volume of 40mm x 60mm x 35mm (1.5-inch x 2.3-inch x 1.3-inch).
The M-FLEX employs ExOne's approach of utilizing a print head that distributes the binder into beds of specially formulated materials. The company recently displayed some of the largest sand molds and cores ever created with additive manufacturing at the 2012 International Manufacturing Technology Show.
Currently available materials include foundry-grade sand for the S-series printers, which employ the same binders used for doing normal sand-casting, said Voss. M-series printers use tool steel, bronze, and 420 and 316 stainless steel/bronze alloys, as well as recycled and opaque glass. "We plan to eventually add more material sets for the M-FLEX," said Voss. "These will include tungsten, glass, and ceramics, and some materials that are used in the casting industry."
Increased build volume and faster speeds are obviously important, enabling these printers to be used to create a wider variety of parts and components. What about price? Have they been able to do anything to bring pricing down and is this printer designed more for prototyping or for the production of actual commercial parts?
Ann, this is interesting, but how long does it take to make a part that would mostly fill the buiild volume. Some of the numbers I have heard in the past seem quite long. Those layers are very small, aren't they? For many shapes one could make them on a CNC machine much faster. Of course, there are some that are easier done with 3D printing.
Beth, this machine is a different animal from most of the 3D printers you and I have covered. It's in the industrial class, along with some I wrote about from Paramount and EADS Innovation Works in my October feature, "3D Printing Flies High" http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=251526 Most of those use metal, since they're primarily aimed at aircraft components. This ExOne machine's capabilities include not only metals, but ceramics and glass, and its big brothers also use sand. It's for prototypes or short runs of multiple and/or custom metal parts in mining, automotive, and energy applications.
Chuck: With these higher end industrial printers, absolutely. With the lower end printers I've been writing about along with Ann, just starting. It's really a question of the quality/durability of the materials used and available and with the tolerances that the printer can handle. The manufacturers are making progress, but it's stil more experimental, in my view, than significant, widespread momentum. Perhaps Ann has a different view?
Beth, that's a good summation, although much of the low-volume production parts used in high-end race cars and aircraft can no longer be considered experimental. I'd also emphasize that the higher end of the industry is on the cusp of some pretty big changes, due in part to expanding build volumes and better materials, as also mentioned in this recent article, "Biggest, Fastest Titanium 3D Printer: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=251754
I'm not as familiar with what's happening on the higher end as that's your domain, but I'd concur big changes are happening on the low-end as well. Perhaps we're at a tipping point on both the high and low ends when it comes to advances both around materials and the ability to bring down price all leading to some very exciting times in the world of 3D printing.
I have to agree that the 3D part printing world is getting pretty exciting, especially with developments like this. Anything that can shorten the time between concept to finished parts speeds up time to market and potentially improves the design by finding problems early in the design cycle. Thanks for profiling this industrial tool.
Beth, I think you're right, that a tipping point is approaching all across the spectrum of these technologies, due to materials and processes. I also think the raised awareness of them and what they can do is also a big factor, and that's been boosted by the NAMII initiative and funding, as we mentioned in this article:
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For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.