Technologies have truly evolved that something as expensive as a metal 3D printing machine can now be offered as a desktop metal 3D printing machine and be accessible to a number of audience with the help of media. However, this could lead to many people think of the industry lightly. Tom goes deep into the processes of two companies, Desktop Metal and Markforged. He highlights their similarities as well as dissimilarities in order to compare and contrast which one is more admirable. Talking also of the media published of the machines produced, he points out the tendency to gloss over the quality. Going back to Desktop Metal, he shares his words and review on whether it is a breakthrough in the metal 3D printing industry or not.
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Is Desktop Metal 3D Printing Really Here?
I’m wanting to discuss something that’s been in the news a lot this year, 2018. Always every year, there are a lot of different authors, magazine articles and different media outlets that write about 3D printing. They write about what’s new in 3D printing now or what’s coming up this year in 3D printing. It’s often a typical thing and people are writing, “What are the breakthrough technologies for 2018?” One of those that’s been hyped a lot and is in the media a lot is metal 3D printing. Metal 3D printing has definitely come a long way and it is up and coming.
I have had many items 3D printed in metal outside at service bureaus almost exclusively because the majority of machines available are just commercial machines. You either have to be a large Fortune 500 company to be able to afford one or a service bureau that’s hoping to get enough people needing them to make parts or whether you’re a consumer or commercial service bureau. It’s more commercial than anything. Metal 3D printing presents a lot of challenges. The kind of 3D printing metal that I have experienced in terms of contract and I have parts made is a laser sintering or a powder bed fusion with lasers process. You’ve got a volume of powdered metal and you can get it done in aluminum or stainless steel or titanium. There’s a number of different metals available out there and I’ve used several of them. I have done titanium and stainless steel myself and coming up soon, I’m working on some aluminum parts that I want to make.
Most of the time when I do this, it’s for a project I’m doing for another company, but the aluminum I’m intending to print is just for me as an experiment doing some testing. I have some of my own designs that I’d like to 3D print in aluminum and that’s pretty exciting to me. It makes perfect sense that they call it laser sintering. That word sintering has to do with heat and melting the metal together. When you have a powder bed full of very fine, almost grains of sand-like powder of that metal and the lasers come together and heat and fuse that metal together. It’s essentially welding it together into, think of it like a pixel within your model, that works very well. When that part is removed from the volume bed of powder, obviously they shake all the loose powder that did not get melted together. You blow it off with air or maybe brush it with some brush that isn’t going to hurt the surface of the metal and clean it up and you’re essentially done with that type of part.
These are very expensive machines and they are by no means desktop machines. You can’t have them in your own little office. You’d have to have it in a machine shop type environment or a lab of some kind. It’s not something that any of us are going to have on our desks or in our home offices or our garages anytime soon. Often, you see these articles come out where they talk about, “There has been a bunch of breakthroughs in metal 3D printing and it’s becoming real.” They’ll say for decades it’s been in the domain of large companies producing one-off prototypes. It’s very expensive, but now it’s becoming a cheap way enough to manufacture parts and that statement may be true.
You can manufacture parts with it in certain industries where the cost justifies it but basically what a lot of these things are saying is that companies like Markforged and Desktop Metal are coming up with much lower cost machines. Markforged was the first company to come up with one under $100,000. Maybe on a relative scale, that’s cheap but in the desktop world of 3D printing that we talk about a lot on this show and that most of our listeners are involved in, that’s still way out of reach from any of us. Then there’s been this other company, Desktop Metal, out of Boston that has been shipping prototype 3D print metal machines. They’re planning to make larger machines designed for manufacturing but using for prototype parts as well.
I want to talk about those processes that these companies are using. When a lot of us read about it and heard about it early on, we had hopes that, “This is great. Metal 3D printing is going to come to the desktop. There will be some inexpensive machines, at least in the thousands of dollars that maybe some of us can afford or smaller businesses can buy to help themselves,” and I just don’t think that’s the case. I want to just go over that and I’m not trying to trash these companies or what they’re doing in their industry, their products and their markets. They’re serving an incredible market. They’re creating new markets and providing valuable machines and pushing the industry forward and I’m excited about that.
I want to talk about the process a bit because I think the name Desktop Metal is a misnomer. I wish they hadn’t used that name for their company because it implies that hobbyists, enthusiasts and smaller companies are going to be able to afford to do this. It also puts into our minds a picture of a single small product, a desktop 3D printer, something that I can put on a typical size desk and I still have room maybe to have a computer on it and do some paper spread out to do some other work and it’s really not the case. If you go and check out Desktop Metal’s website, they show and spell out the process that is used to create metal products using their machines.
It does start out as an FFF or FTM type of process. Meaning you’ve got a Cartesian type of machine that has a nozzle. It’s extruding a material, that usually their software does put down a raft and it has support material as needed. It seems there is an incredibly dense support material needed when you’re making parts in the Desktop Metal system. It is extruding what is a metal powder material for sure, they are extruding that with a binding agent and it’s doing it layer by layer. They are extruding bound metal material with a wax and a polymer binder. Essentially plastic and waxy material and they call it bound metal deposition. That’s the trademark name that they call it and you print a part. You can create a CAD file like you would for printing on a typical FFF plastic filament-based 3D printer and you can print out any part you want to in metal.
The same kind of rules apply to the creation of geometry and potentially the need for a raft and/or supports and then you print your stuff. After that, the part has to be immersed in a proprietary fluid, a liquid that dissolves the polymer and the wax. They call it a proprietary binding fluid. This is not like you’re going to use dissolvable support by that detergent material that is used sometimes or you’re certainly not going to just put it in water. You’ve got a proprietary binding fluid that’s going to dissolve it. The first thing that I get concerned about when I read that and I learned about that with any company is how toxic is that fluid going to be and how am I going to have to dispose of that?
If metals are your thing and you really need it, then it may be a necessary thing that you have to deal with. After you do dissolve that binding medium, you’re left behind with the metal material only. Then it has to be sintered. Meaning the part gets heated incredibly hot, usually to around 1,200 degrees or so Celsius until it’s literally glowing orange or red hot, just not quite to the point of melting the metal but just shy of that. Then the remainder of this binding material, whatever that didn’t come out in that proprietary debinding fluid, the rest of it comes out in the sintering process and the metal particles fuse together and makes an incredibly dense part. They say on the Desktop Metal website that it’s not a completely solid metal part in terms of its density.
If you think about subtractive manufacturing, you take a block of aluminum and you’re going to put it on a milling machine and you’re going to essentially mill material away to leave you with whatever good part you want, what you’re left with at the end of that process is a completely solid part made of solid aluminum. They say that through this process of Desktop Metal, the parts are somewhere in the north of 96% density in terms of the part. That means there’s potentially some negative spaces inside of that part that has not solidified into solid metal.
There are basically a series of machines. You have the main printing machine, you have then this tank of fluid to take the binding material away. The printer itself looks like a pretty large sized 3D printer when you look at their website. It’s a fully enclosed case, very professional, nice looking 3D printer but with a relatively small build plate. It looks like it’s smaller than a piece of 8.5×11 paper, at least for the one that they show. Nonetheless, there are a lot of parts you can make on that, but it’s a very large footprint printer for that size of a build platform.
Then you’ve got to have this tank of debinding fluid and there’s a whole device for that. You got to have this oven that gets up to these incredibly hot temperatures. It reminds me a lot of a kiln that we used in art school when we’re doing ceramic work. You create your thing in the clay material and do all your glazing, whatever decorative colors and appearance you’re going to put on the outside of it, then glaze it, fire it and then it has its full strength and it’s a very similar process.
The idea that this is as simple as the name Desktop Metal would have you believe is just not the case. While the 3D printer is desktop, the debinder and this furnace, this oven that they have, both of those are floor standing machines on wheels. Certainly, you could fit them in a small shop, a lab or in a garage, but only the printer is desktop. I just want to bring some context and reality to that. When you go to look at somebody like Markforged, that is also a company that provides what they call a complete metal solution to 3D print metal. It’s a very similar process in that they’ve got an FFF style machine that they call Metal X and they’ve been doing it for a while.
They have what they call their fourth-generation composite 3D printing technology which started doing composites of plastics. They do composite materials that are incredibly high-strength but still mostly plastic-based materials. They’re using that same kind of technology and it has printed support materials in what appears to be an FFF type of a process and a build volume that is roughly 300 x 220 x 180 millimeters. It’s a pretty small build platform and they have a similar process. You’ve got to print it in an FFF style, layer by layer, and then they go through a washing stage to remove some of the binders and then are sintered similar way. Markforged is doing something very similar to Desktop Metal. They’re not calling it desktop, but what does impress me if you go to the Markforged website, they give you some examples and some case studies in terms of the cost of machining certain parts out of metal in a conventional subtractive manufacturing method.
They give you an impeller which is essentially like a propeller. An impeller is a little different, but you can think of it like a propeller that’s made for rotating and moving fluid of one kind or another. They’ve got a sprocket that you would have as a gear type item in a machine and then they have a bracket. They’re showing you your typical machine cost on these parts range anywhere from about $300 to $600 to $1,800. Then the amount of the cost for making the same part they claim and I’m sure this is just in material only, I just can’t imagine this includes machine time and processing time or any kind of amortization of these machines, but they’re talking about the $1,800 part. To print it on Markforged would cost not even $34 for the bracket that they put there, the sprocket or the gear type item I was talking about.
They say the typical machine costs would be under $300 but only $12.50 on their machine and the impeller that was $600 would be only about $14. Those are incredible savings and you can definitely see on a cost per part when your option is typical machine shop manufactured. The labor and cost of making those parts and the material as well are quite expensive. The Markforged printed cost is incredibly low, but the cost of the machines to buy this, I’m sure is a substantial investment. Even though I know they said they were the first company to come out with a solution under $100,000, that’s wonderful. When you’re going to amortize a machine that cost tens of thousands of dollars or anywhere close to $100,000 over time, you’re going to have to include a lot of the cost of that machine in the cost of the parts that you make. That’s just the way business works, but it’s very promising.
I want to applaud Markforged for putting these case studies out there on their website. I think that’s really helpful. I don’t think enough companies do things like that, providing you with the type of material like one of these 316L stainless steel so you can compare the actual material cost and all sorts of great information there to help you make an informed decision as to whether an investment in a machine like this is going to be worth it for you long-term. If you make enough of these parts on a regular basis, I’m sure it would be. These are very large machines and processes. There are multiple steps. You’re going to print it, you’re going to wash it, and you’re going to sinter it in a furnace and that’s quite a process. Definitely, it’s going to involve dedicated technician and a lot of knowledge and a lot of space. It is not something you’re going to do in your office.
We did an episode about a promising technology in metal 3D printing. It was episode 455 of this podcast. That episode was about 3D Printing Metal FFF Style and it was very exciting. There had been a lot of news in the media of this company out of Buffalo, New York area called Vader Systems. It’s a father and son company startup that has a different unique technology they’ve invented called Magnet-o-Jet where they’re using a metal wire like we use filament in typical 3D printers. Then they’re printing that in FFF style to make metal objects. That was exciting to me, I’m like, “Now we’re talking about something that could be desktop.”
I’m going to compare and contrast between what these articles are saying about breakthrough technology in 2018 in metal 3D printing, which I would argue is not desktop printing and is still very much a commercial system. It’s still with a lot of value, I still respect it, I will probably still use it and try it. Comparing that with another technology that has the hope and the promise of being a real desktop 3D printer for metal using wire, like we do filament on a typical plastic FFF 3D printer. We did a whole article on Vader Systems but I’m not going to go through that in tremendous detail the way I did. I encourage you to go back to that episode and there’s a video embedded in that blog post to show you some part of the process.
As I was doing the research for this episode, talking about Markforged and Desktop Metal, I went back to look at Vader Systems to see where are they now. The reality is they appear like they’re growing and that’s great. There’s some information on their website about, “We’re a growing company, if you’re interested in a career, here’s how you can apply for a job.” If they’re hiring, that’s good news. They have a bunch of other videos available showing some of their earliest machines. They highlight in the media section of their website that they’ve been selling machines to companies. They seem to be targeting companies, not individuals, for their printers. When you look at some of these videos that they have also posted there, they have one there where they’re showing it printing a basic object of a 3D metal cup.
It looks like a common cup you might have in your bathroom just to drink some water after you brush your teeth at night or whatever. There’s nothing remarkable as an object, but they show their printer is actually working and printing. In this case, it was with aluminum, but it does seem relatively primitive. Even this object they’ve chosen to highlight and show, it’s not the most precision-looking object in the world. You can definitely see the lines between the layers and I can see a varying quality of those layers and material being laid down over the height of the print. I’m not trying to come down hard on those guys. They’re doing something incredibly difficult in developing a new technology and more power to them. That’s fantastic. I’m thrilled they’re doing it and I can’t wait to see more from them.
The latest media that they published about selling a machine was in November 2017, it’s been quite a while. I haven’t seen any new media things and maybe that they’re not publishing anything new on their website in a while or they don’t have anybody who’s focused on that. I haven’t seen any other more recent videos that show other types of achievements or things that they may have accomplished in the last year. They do have some early videos showing version two of their machine, like the second one they ever made. Going through it from an engineering perspective, which is very nice and I appreciate that, but the equipment that it took to drive this machine was massive in size. Maybe by manufacturing standards, that’s pretty small but definitely, it’s not something I would call a desktop machine, which is what the hope and the promise were of this technology is that it would be made into a desktop form. Maybe at the end of the day, they’ll develop a version that will be legitimately in one machine without multiple posts processes, a metal 3D printing machine as a desktop item. I certainly hope to see that, but it’s not here now. Is this a breakthrough technology in 2018? I’m sure for some kinds of businesses and some industries, certainly in commercial 3D printing, yes, I would say metal 3D printing is a breakthrough technology.
When it comes to reaching the majority of the volume of users and market of 3D printing, which to me has to include the desktop market, it’s not there yet and it’s not a breakthrough for 2018. I’m hoping for 2019 at this point. That’s just the state of it. I’m not saying it’s bad in any way or even the most amazing thing in the world. I’m just trying to share this information with you, for those of you that may not be aware. I’m very bullish on the future of metal 3D printing and I hope I’m not coming across as too negative. I just want to frame it in some context, in reality of where it is because the media that’s out there, the print media, the articles, places where a lot of these companies try to get mentions, tend to gloss over some of the realities of it and make it seem like, “Metal 3D printing is here. We’re going to be able to have one of those in our homes the way a lot of us do FFF plastic 3D printers now,” and that’s just not the case.
It’s still a wonderful thing and I hope that that’s understood. Do any of you have experience with it? Have you sent any parts to be made on a machine from either Markforged or Desktop Metal? If you have any other information about Vader Systems that I may not be aware of, I’d love to hear from you. Please reach out anywhere on social media at 3D Star Point or leave a comment at the blog posts at 3DStarPoint.com. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thanks so much for reading. I’ll talk to you next time. This has been Tom on the WTFFF 3D Printing Podcast.
- Desktop Metal
- 3D Printing Metal FFF Style – previous episode
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