We’ve talked a lot about 3-D printing in the past, and the amount of money, time and headaches it can save many companies. It’s one of the most revolutionary innovations in the last few decades, and it’s making things possible that were unthinkable (particularly for smaller companies) as recently as ten years ago.
And now there’s a new 3-D printer on the horizon that could be making some even more exciting breakthroughs, courtesy of a company called Desktop Metal. Thanks to a nearly $100 million investment from companies like General Electric, Alphabet and BMW, the company has developed a new 3-D printer that will be able to fabricate metal parts quickly and inexpensively.
It sounds like a daunting task, but Desktop Metal certainly has the brainpower to do it. The company was founded by a group that includes four professors from MIT, one of whom heads the department of materials science and another who is none other than Emanuel Sachs, the man who filed one of the first patents involving 3-D printing in 1989.
Together, they’ve created a product with the goal of reinventing how metal parts are manufactured, potentially changing the face of manufacturing as we know it. It’s an exciting breakthrough, to be sure.
The printer hasn’t been launched yet, but when it is, and if it works as well as Desktop Metal is anticipating, they will achieve something that 30 years of 3-D printing has been unable to do. While there are many advantages to the 3-D printing modelacross the board, it has yet to find truly widespread use or acceptance in the manufacturing sector at large.
While there are plenty of businesses and private designers who have been able to use 3-D printing to make various complex and innovative designs out of plastics, they’ve typically been for very specialized products like hearing aids or dental implants.
That’s partly because the main problem with using 3-D printing for more sophisticated (and more mass-consumption-friendly) products is the price, particularly when it comes to metals. There are currently some methods of 3-D printing with metals, but these processes are not easy, and they’re very expensive. GE, for example, uses one of these techniques, and it involves very specialized, very high-powered lasers to make a relatively small line of parts.
In their case, it costs millions of dollars for the machinery, and GE requires a group of highly-trained technicians to operate them. At present, there’s simply no available option to create a wider range of products or to do so at a cost that would be manageable for a smaller company.
In order to create a 3-D printing system that could accomplish these goals, Desktop Metal had to look back to move ahead.
They researched a type of technology that was first created in the 1980s. MIT, whose commitment to 3-D printing has clearly been a long-term plan, filed one of the first patents for a device that laid down a paper-thin layer of metallic powder, then used an inkjet-printing based printing method to lay a liquid over the powder that bound it together. The process was designed to be repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, allowing the layers to define the intricacies of metal parts and pieces.
It was an exciting breakthrough, but the process was too slow to be useful to manufacturing companies. It’s only through the subsequent three decades of technological development that the process has been made quicker, easier and more cost-efficient. At this point in the process, Desktop Metal has improved the technology to the point that it’s about 100 times faster than the laser-printer system that GE currently uses.
The plan right now is for the process to be available in early 2018, but Desktop Metal is already taking the product to conferences and trade shows all over the country, allowing designers and engineers to get their first look at this exciting new breakthrough.
Interested in learning more about what’s next in product development? Read our post “How DIY Technology is Changing What’s Possible for New Products.”