Yup, you can now print with metal

Additive manufacturing is getting better, faster, and cheaper. Printing with metal is the next frontier.

There are three big problems keeping 3D printing from having the long-promised impact in manufacturing: the unacceptably high failure rate during prototyping (up to 70 percent with many printers, according to one Autodesk exec), the slow speed, and the dearth of versatile materials.

Speed and failure rates are improving with each generation of devices, but that last one, the materials, is where the technology will live or die. If printing filaments and powders don't get more diverse, applications will remain severely constrained.

Which is why it's pretty exciting that printing with metal is slowly becoming practical. The concept is not new--3D metal printing is currently used for high-end prototyping, particularly when it comes to parts in the automotive industry that would be costlier or more time consuming to machine. But now the tech is getting far more flexible, easier to use, and, crucially, less expensive.

A company called Aurora Labs has been developing a metal printer it hopes to sell for under $4000 (as a point of comparison, its current titanium printer goes for ten times that price), and a team at Michigan recently released open-source plans for a crude metal printer that costs less than $2000 to build.

But the real tipping point will come when the now-expensive high tech metal printing processes fall in price, giving makers and entrepreneurs a snazzy tool to create high strength parts for heavy duty applications.

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Metal object printed by 3D Systems Corporation

3D Systems Corporation

A team of researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology recently began working with Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies in Kansas City, Missouri, on a project to improve what's known as selective laser melting (SLM). To "print" a part, a laser beam running along a programmed trajectory quickly melts metal particles in a powder bed. The molten metal solidifies layer by layer into the desired shape. This method allows for complex internal features, such as honeycombs and holes through twisting parts.

"A major benefit with this method is that it minimizes the time of product realization," says Dr. Ming Leu, one of the researchers. "It provides great advantages over conventional methods. With metal additive manufacturing, you can make parts of very complex geometry with internal features that can't be made by conventional methods."

You can already order 3D printed objects in materials like bronze, silver, and aluminum from a handful of 3D-print-to-order companies like Shapeways that allow you to upload your own designs. But the resolution isn't great--Shapeways can only guarantee larger aluminum objects within a 2% margin of error.

The new generation of selective laser melting that the MU S&T team is working on will be more accurate, capable of producing objects like titanium hips and knee joints or complex fuel injectors. Imagine a hospital having a printer like that on-site. If you're tired of leaving your car in the shop while parts are shipped from a regional distribution center, fear not: It won't be long before your mechanic will be able to print many of your car's crucial components in-shop.

The five-year project is being funded for about $5 million, with an additional $1.5 million in equipment from Honeywell. The material the team is working with first is Stainless steel 304L, which is commonly used for precision components and sheet metal. Metal object printed by 3D Systems Corporation. 3D Systems Corporation