Desktop Metal Reveals 100x Faster Metal 3D Printing Tech
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on April 25, 2017 | 10310 views

After almost two years of mystery, Burlington, Massachusetts startup Desktop Metal has finally come out of stealth mode to reveal its much anticipated metal 3D printing technology. If the technology pans out as promised, it could have huge implications for the production of metal end parts with additive manufacturing (AM).

The DM Studio System is described as the first office friendly metal 3D printer. On the right is the microwave-enhanced sintering furnace. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
The DM Studio System is described as the first office friendly metal 3D printer. On the right is the microwave-enhanced sintering furnace. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

With the big unveil, Desktop Metal has announced not one, but two 3D printers, the $120,000 DM Studio for rapid prototyping and the DM Production for production, which is expected to cost around $360,000 with additional equipment pricing to be determined. Whereas the DM Studio, described as the “first office-friendly metal 3D printing system for rapid prototyping”, is about 10 times less expensive than industrial selective laser melting (SLM) systems, the DM Production is described as being one hundred times faster than SLM technology.

The DM Studio features safe-to-handle cartridges. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
The DM Studio features safe-to-handle cartridges. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

The DM Studio uses what Desktop Metal dubs Bound Metal Deposition (BMD), in which print cartridges “designed to support hundreds of different metal alloys” are used to print parts in a method similar to fused deposition modeling (FDM).

Separable supports minimize post processing. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
Separable supports minimize post processing. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

No hazardous powders, lasers, or cutting tools are required for this process. Separable Supports also make it possible to remove support structures by hand. The system can also be purchased with an accompanying “microwave-enhanced sintering furnace”.

The DM Production System is described as 100 times faster than existing SLM technologies. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
The DM Production System is described as 100 times faster than existing SLM technologies. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

The DM Production system uses a technology called Single Pass Jetting (SPJ). All that is known about this process is that Desktop Metal claims it to be one hundred times faster than SLM, and that it will be the fastest method for producing high resolution metal parts. The company has so far filed 138 patents related to its various processes.

Desktop Metal’s Big Partners

One other thing we know is that Desktop Metal’s technology has received some substantial votes of confidence from some equally substantial companies. Since it was founded in 2015, the startup has received $97 million in funding from GV (formerly Google Ventures), BMW Group, Lowe’s, GE, Saudi Aramco, Lux Capital, Stratasys, NEA and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Uwe Higgen, Managing Partner of BMW i Ventures, elaborated on BMW Group’s confidence in the technology: "The rapid pace of innovation in technology is enabling OEMs to design, produce and deliver their products differently. I see a huge potential for the highly competitive automotive industry to accelerate product development and production. Desktop Metal’s technology offers a new way for the manufacturing industry to be smarter, faster and more cost effective with metal 3D printing. Whether it’s rapid prototyping or output at scale, a solution for printing metal parts that is competitive to the traditional manufacturing processes is certain to change the face of automotive design and production.”

(Right) A yoke for a brake assembly produced with the DM Studio system as a replacement part for heavy machinery and (left) the original part that was cast and machined. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
(Right) A yoke for a brake assembly produced with the DM Studio system as a replacement part for heavy machinery and (left) the original part that was cast and machined. (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

Large equipment manufacturer Caterpillar will also explore Desktop Metal’s technology. If Caterpillar does adopt Desktop Metal’s technology, it will augment the OEM’s growing AM capabilities.

Don Jones, Caterpillar Global Parts Strategy Manager, explained:“Caterpillar’s Parts Network has twenty-one distribution centers around the world that hold hundreds of thousands of service parts to provide over 2,000 dealer locations with the parts needed to provide our customers with their expected uptime. By leveraging a portion of 3D printing for metal parts, we will be able to enhance best in class service with lower inventory investment.  We are excited to evaluate the Desktop Metal suite of products, which will allow us to print metal parts at high speed and minimal post processing and environmental constraints closer to our customers, reducing the need to expedite ship critical parts from across the globe.”

Desktop Metal’s Staff

With over 100 employees, Desktop Metal is comprised of some talented staff, including Ely Sachs, MIT professor and inventor of binder jet printing; Yet-Ming Chiang, MIT professor and materials scientist; Christopher Schuh, Chairman of the MIT Department of Materials Science & Engineering; Jonah Myerberg, Chief Technology Officer; and Rick Chin, early SolidWorks team member and founder of Xpress 3D, which was acquired by Stratasys.

Desktop Metal co-founders (front left to right: CEO Ric Fulop, A. John Hart, Jonah Myerberg; standing left to right: Yet Ming-Chiang, Chris Schuh, Ely Sachs, Rick Chin). (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)
Desktop Metal co-founders (front left to right: CEO Ric Fulop, A. John Hart, Jonah Myerberg; standing left to right: Yet Ming-Chiang, Chris Schuh, Ely Sachs, Rick Chin). (Image courtesy of Desktop Metal.)

The company is led by CEO Ric Fulop, an entrepreneur and investor. In his native Venezuela, Fulop launched his first business at the age of 16, importing computer hardware and software to retailers in the country. He then went on to found several other companies, including Into Networks, which developed software used in Windows Vista. In 2001, Fulop helped commercialize Yet-Ming ¬≠Chiang’s new lithium ion battery technology via a firm called A123 Systems. This technology has since been used in a number of passenger and commercial electric vehicles.

“Until now, metal 3D printing has failed to meet today’s manufacturing needs due to high costs, slow processes and hazardous materials,” Fulop said, “With a team of some of the world’s leading experts in materials science, engineering and innovation, Desktop Metal has eliminated these barriers by developing metal 3D printing systems that can safely produce complex, strong metal parts at scale.”

Metal 3D Printing is Heating Up

As ENGINEERING.com seeks out an interview with Desktop Metal, it’s difficult to ascertain much more about the technology as it stands. Though proprietary to Desktop Metal, the DM Studio sounds somewhat reminiscent of Markforged’s atomic diffusion additive manufacturing (ADAM), which uses metal powder fused within a plastic matrix to 3D print metal parts similar to FDM. These parts also require post-sintering, like those made with the DM Studio.

Also soon to hit the market is XJet’s nanoparticle jetting technology (NPJ). While it isn’t described as being a hundred times faster than SLM processes, NPJ is capable of producing the highest resolution metal parts on the market. Jetting 221 million drops of liquid metal ink per second, NPJ fuses nanoparticles together to create features as fine as 1 micron. These parts are then sintered in an oven. Like both ADAM and BMD, the material is safe to handle because it is contained within a canister.

As more details emerge about Desktop Metal’s technology, it will be interesting to see how it differs from other new processes in the market. One big difference right off the bat is the team that makes up the company, both in terms of its leadership and its investors.

Customers will be able to reserve both the DM Studio and DM Production Systems in May. While the DM Studio ships in September 2017, the DM Production System will ship in early 2018. To learn more, visit Desktop Metal’s website.

Update 4/25/17: Since Desktop Metal's news came across the wire, the company has updated its website significantly with details about how its technology works, including its DM Production System's SPJ platform. 

SPJ features a bi-directional printhead that first spreads and compacts powder before two full-width print bars with more than 32,000 jets deposit a binder followed by an "anti-sintering" agent. This makes it possible to easily break off support structures once the print is complete, while the binder joins the rest of the powder into the necessary shape. Because the print head is bi-directional, printing is performed with every back and forth motion of the printhead, realizing speeds of up to 8200 cm3 per hour, or 100 times faster than laser-based systems.

The object is then placed into an accompanying microwave-enhanced furnace that speeds up the sintering process through a combination of microwaves and conventional heating. This cloud-connected oven features closed-loop thermal control and temperature profiles suited to every material that may be sintered.

Desktop Metal has also included the specifications of its machines online. The DM Studio can achieve layer heights of 50 μm and speeds of 16 cm3 per hour within a build area of 300 mm x 200 mm x 200 mm. The DM Production prints in a larger working envelope of 330mm x 330mm x 330mm with layer heights of less than 50 μm. 

Because Desktop Metal relies on powders from the metal injection molding (MIM) market, the company suggests that its technology can use the over 200 alloys found in MIM. So far, it has demonstrated the use of Chrome Moly alloy steel, C11000 copper, Kovar F-15, Inconel 625, two varieties of stainless steel and H13 tool steel.

From seeing how SPJ works, it does seem somewhat similar to NPJ; however, the efficiency of the process is pretty amazing. As Desktop Metal suggests, the ability to print large batches of parts so quickly makes SPJ competitive with casting. If so, metal 3D printing really may be about to break the injection mold.

Correction 4/26/17: This article previously stated that the price of the DM Studio would be $49,900 and the price of the DM Production would be $120,000. The DM Studio System is actually $120,000. The DM Production System is expected to cost around $360,000 with additional equipment pricing to be determined.

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