3 Additive Manufacturing technologies to watch out for in 2017
With 2016 coming to a close, it’s time to look forward to 2017 and the 3D printing technologies and innovations to get excited about. 2016 has been a year of acquisitions and funding with the likes of Formlabs, Desktop Metal and Carbon closing large rounds and GE stepping into the market with the acquisitions of Arcam and Concept Laser. So what are companies doing in this space to inspire such an influx of money and interest? Below we highlight 3 technologies to watch out for in 2017.
The first technology is bringing a whole new way of creating metal parts to the market. The machine is called the XJet and the technology it uses is called Nano Particle Jetting (NPJ).
Most metal 3D printing technologies use a powder which is then sintered to create parts layer by layer, falling into the technology category of Powder Bed Fusion. The XJet uses an ink jetting method (material jetting) similar to a 2D printer but instead of colored ink, it lays down nano-particle of metal in ink form.
It works by grinding up metal into a fine dust, up to the point where it’s at a sub-micron level. Standard metal printers tend to use particles ranging from 30–45 microns. Kept in a liquid agent, the nano-particle ink is then deposited onto the build plate from the print head at a whopping 221 million drops per second. As it deposits the ink, the liquid agent evaporates, leaving the metal particles deposited. The deposited particles are then fused together with a heating element which passes over them applying a temperature of up to 300°C. Thanks to the size of the droplets, metal parts can be created with a layer thickness as fine as 1 micron.
So why does this technology matter? First of all, only the material needed for the build job is used thereby limiting the amount of waste. With traditional powder bed fusion machines, the metal powder used cannot be reused over and over again due to the high temperatures it’s exposed to, leaving large amounts of expensive material wasted.
Another major problem area for powder bed machines is the safety of the operator dealing with the metal powder and gasses used with this method. Using the XJet machine, there is a much greater level of safety, with no residual metal dust that can be inhaled or react to external elements. All Xjet material is stored in sealed cartridges which are inserted into the machine.
The final key advantage is the overall detail level and surface finishing which requires no post machining or laborious support removal process. The Xjet uses a support material which does not attach itself to the print and is easy to burn away when placed in an oven.
With its humongous build tray of 500 mm x 250 mm x 250 mm, the XJet can produce large to small high-detail parts. The jury is still out though with no printers shipped as of yet, we will see if it lives up to the hype in 2017.
HP Multi-Jet Fusion
HP’s foray into the world of 3D printing with its HP Jet Fusion 4200 debut 3D printer hasn’t exactly been a quiet step into the industry. With its large stands at trade shows and announcements across the mainstream, not many people have actually gotten their hands on it. We expect 2017 to be the year that the Multi-Jet Fusion driven machine comes out of hiding and begins making parts for engineers and designers around the world. HP have already confirmed three German resellers of the machine in Europe with many others across the world.
The machine uses their patented Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology which works by dispensing millions of drops of chemical agent per second onto a thin layer of powdered materials (sounds familiar…2D), whilst instantly curing it. What’s really unique is that the process has the ability to set the properties of each individual volumetric pixel (or as HP calls it: the “voxel”). This means you’re able to control the mechanical and physical characteristics throughout a part with the ability to add more detail, including color and structural mechanics. The cost of the machine is $155,000 which is competitive in the industrial space as most nylon machines range from $200,000 up to $500,000.
What makes HP’s new technology exciting is for the first time, you will be able to control the exact characteristics of your part all within the machine, making it the most versatile 3D printer on the market if it does what it says it will do. HP has opened up the material platform for the machine, encouraging third parties to get involved and innovate new materials. Gone are the days of price gouging with proprietary materials that we have become accustomed to from giants such as HP. Thermo-plastic is the first material of what could become a plethora of useful materials never-before used by engineers or product designers in the additive manufacturing space.
Arcam’s been around a bit longer than the other companies highlighted, after being publicly listed in 1997 and producing its first machine in 2002. There are two reasons to highlight this technology for 2017. First is GE’s acquisition of Arcam earlier this year, and secondly, is the two key markets it operates in: Aerospace and Medical. GE’s new controlling stake in Arcam will enable it to influence the direction of the company, and the new investment is sure to show some major product and technological updates in the coming year.
The industries Arcam are active in are two key verticals where 3D printing is becoming more widely adopted: the medical case in the form of implants (50,000 orthopaedic implants made so far by Arcam), and for functional end-parts for aviation. With the 3D printing of metals expected to grow more than any other area of the industry - with printer sales growing 48% and material sales growing at 32% (IDTech Report) - it makes this area even more interesting for the year to come.
Electron beam melting (EBM) is a proprietary additive manufacturing technology owned by Arcam. It works by using a high-power electron gun (up to 3,000 watts) to heat powdered metal building parts layer by layer. After each layer is completed, the build tank is lowered, fresh powder is raked over the work surface, and the process continues until the component is complete. EBM as a technology differs from other metal types of additive manufacturing as it doesn’t use lasers and argon gas to melt the metal. The key to EBM is the high energy electron gun which melts many layers down instead of just the surface layer, creating stronger, more accurate parts.
The implications of EBM technology are huge as it is one of the only ways to build custom implants that the body is less likely to reject. These titanium implants contain porous areas which facilitate bone growth and can be designed with that in mind. No post processing is needed, unlike previous attempts at creating metal 3D printed implants which needed a coating to encourage bone growth. The aviation sector looks to EBM thanks to its ability to deal with intense heat and pressure situations. Honeywell create parts for their airplane engines and need parts to withstand above 1,000°C, making EBM perfect when using specific nickel-based alloys. It also disrupts the traditional manufacturing methods aerospace companies are using, with faster lead times and far more complex geometries available, saving both time and money.