Plastics and Nylon are the most commonly used materials for 3D printing at home. Many 3D printers are currently being used for printing models that do not require high mechanical strength. This is all set to change with the emerging trend of home 3D metal printing.
3D Metal Printing Technologies
3D printing metals using the Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) process has been done for many years now. In this process, metallic powder is first spread on the bed. A LASER is used to trace each layer or a “slice” of the print on the powder. On contact with the LASER, the powder melts and fuses with the layer below it. It is thus an additive process.
Another promising technology is Liquid Metal Jet Printing (LMJP). This technology is similar to that of an Inkjet printer, where molten metal is sprayed drop by drop at correct locations. An additive process once again. Vader Mk I is one such model which uses this concept and can spray approximately 1000 drops of molten metal per second!
Another interesting technology is the use of metal clay. Metal clay consists of tiny metal particles of either Gold, Silver, Copper or Bronze mixed into an organic binder and water. This clay can be used in molds and can be shaped by hand. The model is then fired in a kiln. The process of heating the model in the kiln, burns away the binder, sintering the metal together in the desired shape. 3D printers using metal clay extrude clay in lieu of plastic.
The self-replicating MetalicaRap series of metal 3D printer uses electron beam welding and vapor deposition. A very different technology from the others.
3D Metal Printer Prices
Printers which cost less than $5000 are called consumer printers and printers that cost more than $5000 are termed as industrial printers. For a long time, 3D printing using metals have been in the realm of industrial printers with many costing more than $10000. This has kept the technology out of the reach of small and medium industries.
In the past few years, development teams around the world have been making a concerted effort to bring down the costs of 3D metal printers to sub $5000 levels and have been largely successful in doing so. Due to high development costs involved, individuals have been approaching crowdfunding sites such as Indiegogo for funding the initial design of the printers.
According to David Harktop, a pioneer in 3D metal printing, the desktop 3D metal printing industry is approximately worth $2.2 billion, despite requirement of post processing technologies. This speaks volumes about the potential of 3D metal printing.
Consumer Metal 3D Printers
David Hartkop’s Mini Metal Maker and Newton 3D printer, which has won the Goldsmith’s Technological Innovation Award 2013 by the Craft and Design Council, are two home metal 3D printers which are creating ripples in the industry. Both of them use metal clay and can print up to a resolution of 400 microns!
Another 3D metal printer which is being eagerly anticipated is from Sinterit. The printer is yet to be given a name. This company is aiming at producing 3D metal printers using Selective Laser Sintering at a price point of around $5000. This printer is slated to be released in 2015.
On the whole, a clear picture of a bright future for 3D metal printers is emerging, as the technology catches up bringing the printers closer to your home.