10 Rising Stars in Metal 3D Printing Hardware
05 August 2020
Metal 3D printing has entered a unique period in its history. The developments in hardware, software and materials ensure it continues to mature to unlock new applications and create products with a high level of reliability.
Today, we launch a series of articles exploring innovative companies driving metal additive manufacturing (AM), beginning with hardware.
As metal 3D printing evolves, new hardware manufacturers are entering the market to tackle current challenges with novel processes or creative takes on existing ones.
We’ve put together a list of companies that have recently commercialised promising metal AM technologies, or plan to do so soon – to find out who, alongside the well-established players, will be shaping the future of metal 3D printing.
Laser Powder Bed Fusion
Laser Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) technology remains one of the most popular and advanced metal AM processes. But given the challenges of high hardware costs, slow printing speeds and the limitations stemming from proprietary systems, there is vast scope for improvement.
Several companies within the PBF market appeared to have solved some of these problems with faster, open and more flexible metal PBF systems.
1. Aurora Labs
While the prospect of 3D printing metal parts at the speed of 1 tonne of metal per day may sound too good to be true, Australian metal 3D printer manufacturer, Aurora Labs, looks set to achieve just that.
Since 2014, Aurora Labs has been developing a new metal 3D printing technology to enable metal 3D printing at much faster speeds. First unveiled at Formnext 2018, the Multilevel Concurrent Printing (MCP™) is based on the familiar powder bed fusion technology – but comes with a twist.
Unlike traditional powder bed technologies, that print one layer at a time, MCP prints multiple layers simultaneously in a single pass.
So how does the technology work? The MCP technology has two key elements: a grid-like recoater mechanism and multiple laser beams. When the print begins, the recoater device, which features multiple hoppers, slides over the print bed, with each hopper depositing different layers of powder in a single pass.
As one layer is deposited, it’s fused by a laser, reaching the powder through the special gaps in the recoater. During that same pass, subsequent layers are being deposited and fused successively by lasers.
Essentially, this means that multiple layers can be printed in a single pass, significantly speeding up the printing process.
Last September, Aurora Labs reported that its RMP1 3D printer, powered by the MCP technology, had reached a printing speed of 350 kg per day – a substantial milestone, compared to around 15 kg per day the system was able to print in September 2018.
Given these improvements, Aurora Labs is well-positioned to bring to the market one of the fastest metals PBF systems, that will potentially rival traditional manufacturing processes in terms of time and cost.
2. Open Additive
While many established 3D printer manufacturers are offering proprietary systems, only a few companies have decided to adopt an open system approach.
One such company is Open Additive, a spin-off from Universal Technology Company (UTC), with the goal to develop an industrialised solution that could fit into a variety of environments and needs.
That’s why the company has developed an affordable laser PBF system, called PANDA 3D printer, with multiple customisable options, from open machine architecture and materials to open parameters and sensor technology.
Open Additive believes that one of the key benefits of using open systems is that companies can reduce the risk of obsolescence, by adding more capabilities or adjusting the system, as new, advanced technologies are developed.
This open hardware and materials approach isn’t especially common in AM today, but the industry is becoming increasingly more receptive to such developments. With efforts like the one from Open Additive, we’re coming close to the vision of flexible, configurable additive technology that gives companies many more options to drive innovation.
The world of entry-level metal 3D printing is populating quickly, and the launch of Sharebot’s MetalONE 3D printer serves as yet another example of this trend.
With the portfolio encompassing the key plastic 3D printing processes, it was only a matter of time before Sharebot moved into metal.
In the case of MetalONE, the machine is the result of a project that has evolved from Sharebot’s SnowWhite SLS machine for thermoplastic powders, which the company launched four years ago.
Debuted last year, the machine features a rather petite build envelope of 65 x 65 x 100 mm. But despite its small footprint, the system marked a significant step forward for the company.
Priced below $120,000, the MetalONE sits in the same price category as other entry-level metal 3D printers, like Xact Metal’s XM200 and the ORLAS Creator from OR Laser, both based on PBF technology.
Such systems are all ideal for testing materials or part designs before scaling up to larger PBF machines but can also be suitable for small-scale jewellery and dental fabrication.
It’s exciting to see how Sharebot, which started as a developer of basic desktop 3D printers, has gradually evolved its product offering to more professional polymer 3D printers, and after years of research, has arrived at its first metal 3D printer.
Set to make metal 3D printing more accessible to small and medium companies, Sharebot is poised to use its already well-developed ecosystem to tap into a new market of affordable metal prototyping and product development.
Direct Energy Deposition
The developments in the field of Direct Energy Deposition (DED) are particularly abundant. This technology uses a focused heat source to melt metal powder or wire, as it’s being added on the build platform.
DED hardware companies are increasingly popping up, with one particularly exciting area of development being Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). Below, we take a look at some promising hardware manufacturers in the field of WAAM and powder-based DED processes.
As of 2020, the WAAM market remains small, with a handful of companies actively developing this metal 3D printing technology.
WAAM3D is perhaps one of the lesser-known names in the field, but the company had conducted an extensive amount of research before deciding to bring its technology to market.
WAAM3D was founded in 2018 to commercialise Cranfield University’s intellectual property in the field of WAAM.
According to the company, the lack of supply chain – namely software tools, WAAM-designed hardware, raw materials, training and services – has hindered the deserved industrial adoption of WAAM processes, despite its proven business benefits.
The company aims to create such a supply chain and promote the use of WAAM across the aerospace and defence, oil and gas, energy and nuclear industries.
So far, WAAM3D has published several successful applications of its technology. One is a titanium part, a 1 m long pressure vessel, that has been manufactured for Thales Alenia Space. By using WAAM to produce this component, the team saved more than 200 kg of material per item and was able to consolidate two parts of the vessel into one.
Earlier this year, WAAM3D completed its first Series A funding round, which is set to take the company further in commercialising WAAM technology.
AML3D is another company whose foundation was inspired by Cranfield University. AML3D’s Managing Director, Andrew Sales, studied at Cranfield and fascinated by the technology’s potential, founded a WAAM service bureau in Australia in 2014.
In 2019, the company secured certification from the global shipping industry accreditation body, Lloyd’s Register. With the certification in place, AML3D delivered its first part to a marine customer: a set of martensitic stainless steel wear rings.
Earlier this year, AML3D also revealed that it’s preparing the delivery of its first WAM-based 3D printer, called Arcemy, to ST Engineering, a leader in aerospace and defence. The Arcemy system combines welding, CAD software design and robotics technology, to produce industrial-quality, large-format and fully dense metal parts.
AML3D expects its 3D printing technology will benefit the maritime sector, among others, helping to reduce lead times and facilitate shipbuilding and repair.
6. Big Metal Additive
The idea of pushing large-format 3D printing forward. has also inspired the foundation of Big Metal Additive (BMA). This start-up has developed a wire-fed, arc-based AM method to create large, complex design structures from aluminium.
With a build volume of over 15 cubic ft and deposition rates of up to 5 lbs (around 2,27 kg) per hour, BMA’s machine is optimised to make trusses, auto chassis, enclosures, tooling and fixtures, beams and architectural elements.
Another differentiating factor for the BMA system is materials. Most metal 3D printers work only with specialised alloys that melt and consolidate easily. Big Metal uses eight commercial aluminium arc welding alloys, which are a lot less costly. The company also expects to add stainless and tool steels, superalloys and titanium in the future.
‘We want the process we’ve designed to become widespread. We want it everywhere, from hot rod shops to maintenance to prototype design shops’, said company founder and president, Slade Gardner, in an interview with ASME.
The company’s plans seem truly ambitious, but quite natural for a company looking to drive metal AM into the realm of large-format manufacturing.
7. CHIRON Group
A few months ago, CHIRON GROUP, a global manufacturer of CNC equipment, made its foray into the world of AM, with the development of its first DED 3D printer, the AM Cube.
But what had prompted such a big step into the 3D printing arena in the first place?
By adding AM technology to its product portfolio, CHIRON aims to provide a complete package of manufacturing solutions. Geared towards large and complex components, the AM Cube expands upon the company’s existing core competencies that focus on metal machining and automation.
Targeting applications in aerospace, energy, tool manufacturing and other industries, the system 3D prints near net shape parts but is also capable of coating and repairing components.
One exciting feature of the AM Cube is its modularity. The 3D printer has been designed so that up to three print heads can be changed during an active printing or coating process.
Additionally, Chiron has made sure to enable the use of both wire and powder to enhance the machine’s flexibility. That’s because coating with powder is a commonly used process in many industrial settings, while wire-based DED delivers better safety characteristics and waste reduction.
Now CHIRON is creating a facility, where it will use its new 3D printer to produce larger components, with long procurement times and high material prices.
Formalloy has been around since the beginning of 2016, but in those 4 years, the DED metal 3D printing company has made quite a name for itself.
Formalloy’s award-winning technology is said to be capable of printing with one of the most comprehensive lists of metal alloys on the market. Furthermore, its DED systems are equipped with blue light laser technology, to create near-net-shape parts with diameters spanning 1 mm to 1 m, at a deposition rate of up to 15 lbs per hour.
The company’s latest X-series system also features Formfeed powder feeders that make it possible to 3D print with gradient/bi-metallic structures.
With the growing trend towards in-process monitoring, Formalloy implemented closed-loop control technology into the X-series, enabling the system to monitor build quality and accuracy in real time.
Thanks to its ability to manufacture large components and repair its parts, Formalloy’s 3D printers were adopted by the likes of NASA in a series of R&D projects to investigate the scalability of large-format AM.
By developing solutions geared towards cost reduction and material flexibility, Formalloy is out to capture a portion of the DED market that is only now becoming a more crowded technology category.
Incus GmbH, a spin-off of Austrian ceramic 3D printer vendor, Lithoz, debuted its new metal photopolymerisation 3D printing process at Formnext in 2019.
The technology behind its new 3D printer is based on the vat polymerisation techniques, like SLA and DLP, which use liquid resin materials. Incus, on the other hand, has developed a process that enables the curing of a photoreactive, metal-filled material, using a powerful light projector. Parts 3D printed using the technology must undergo debinding and sintering to achieve their final properties.
Potential advantages of this process over other metal AM techniques include an ability to work with new ‘non-weldable’ metals, improved safety (due to the avoidance of airborne powders), increased accuracy and, since it’s light-based, faster build speeds.
The technology was brought to market in late 2019 under the Hammer series of 3D printers and is now in operation for several beta customers. Incus is continuing to fine-tune its technology and is looking to unlock more applications across the medical, automotive, aerospace and jewellery sectors.
Almost all 3D printing processes focus on printing the actual object, with one exception being 3D printing of moulds for casting.
Israeli start-up, Tritone, has developed the unique MoldJet technology that twists the idea of the usual 3D printing process: instead of 3D printing the desired object, Tritone’s 3D printer creates a mould first and then fills it with a metal or ceramic paste, while a precision blade wipes away any excess material to leave a smooth layer.
The material then undergoes a thermal processing step to harden it, followed by inspection to analyse layer quality. Once finished, parts are taken from the tray and placed into an ultrasonic bath which dissolves the mould material to leave a robust green part, ready for the final sintering step.
One of the key advantages in using MoldJet over other 3D printing processes is the ability to use standard Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) powders, which could bring material costs down. MIM materials are versatile and commonly available everywhere, at commodity price levels.
Furthermore, Tritone says parts can deliver a density of up to 99 per cent, with a quality similar to that of MIM parts.
Currently, Tritone is focused on further developing and testing the machine powered by MoldJet technology. It will be exciting to see how the new technology will be received in the market, when the company will commercialise its metal 3D printer, with a launch planned for the end of this year.
Advancing metal 3D printing hardware
Metal 3D printing is one of the fastest-growing technologies today, and one reason for this growth is its ongoing evolution.
New hardware manufacturers joining the AM industry are one of the driving forces behind this evolution, as they aim to develop processes that overcome the challenges of the already existing machines.
The growing competition in the metal 3D printing market fuels innovation. However, to make the most of the innovative metal AM hardware, it must also be supported by the advancements in other areas, like materials and software development.
Only by creating an ecosystem that supports reliable and repeatable use of metal 3D printing, can both start-ups and more established companies make metal AM a valuable manufacturing solution.
Stay tuned for our next article that will take a look at the rising stars in metal 3D printing materials.