New Metal 3D Printing Tech Heads to TechCrunch Disrupt
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 17, 2017 | 5099 views

Last December, a new start-up called Collider finally unveiled its exciting 3D printing technology: Programmable Tooling. Now, Collider has taken its technology to TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017, where it will face off against 19 other companies in the Startup Battlefield for a chance to win the $50,000 grand prize and the Disrupt Cup. At the event, Collider has at least one trick up its sleeve: the ability to 3D print metal.

A copper cog produced with Collider’s Programmable Tooling technique. (Image courtesy of Collider.)
A copper cog produced with Collider’s Programmable Tooling technique. (Image courtesy of Collider.)

What Is Programmable Tooling?

The Programmable Tooling process involves using continuous digital light projection (DLP) to 3D print a hollow shell that is then filled with injection molding material that sets within the mold. The part is then rinsed under hot water to remove the outer shell. The result is custom, injection molded parts, including complex geometries, which are printed on demand.

This introduces a number of benefits not previously possible with 3D printing. Because the process relies on continuous DLP, it both moves quickly and produces very high resolution parts. This ensures that the injection molded parts are just as smooth as those made with traditional injection molding.

A rubber shoe sole made with Programmable Tooling. (Image courtesy of Collider.)
A rubber shoe sole made with Programmable Tooling. (Image courtesy of Collider.)

The use of off-the-shelf manufacturing materials, rubber and polyurethanes, means that the material portfolio for the company’s flagship printer, Orchid, is vastly expanded when compared to the injection molding materials already on the market. Currently, those materials are made by third-party manufacturers, with Collider vetting each one to ensure that it works properly with the machine.

On the polymer side of things, Collider currently offers these products from Smooth-On: impact and wear-resistant Simpact 60A urethane, which has high tear strength; OOMOO 25, which has weaker tear strength and is meant for making molds and consumer goods; rigid Smooth-Cast 65D polyurethane for mechanical parts; and Flame Out, a tough and machinable polyurethane for aerospace parts and other industrial applications.

 

In addition to the material portfolio, parts made with programmable tooling are isotropic, meaning that they exhibit equal strength in all directions. This is a key property for structural components and one that is not achievable by a number of 3D printing processes, such as fused deposition modeling (FDM) and laser sintering.

Programmable Tooling with Metals

At TechCrunch Disrupt, Collider announced that, in addition to polymers, the Programmable Tooling process can be used for metals. ENGINEERING.com spoke with the company’s CEO and founder, Graham Bredemeyer, to learn how this process works.

The shells for stainless steel parts being 3D printed. (Image courtesy of Collider.)
The shells for stainless steel parts being 3D printed. (Image courtesy of Collider.) 

“We’re using the exact same process we already use [for polymers],” Bredemeyer said. “The only difference is that we inject, instead of our traditional two-component resins, two-component resins that are filled with metal particles at a very high concentration. It’s about 85 percent metal by weight inside of the liquid.”

This specialty thermoset material, which is loaded with metal particles, is injected into the 3D-printed shell, where it cures. The build plate is then removed from the machine and the shell is dissolved under hot water. “Then you’re left with a green state part that is put inside of a furnace,” Bredemeyer continued. “The furnace burns out the polymer and sinters the metal particles together.”

A 3D-printed shell being filled with stainless steel material. (Image courtesy of Collider.)

A 3D-printed shell being filled with stainless steel material. (Image courtesy of Collider.)

The technology bears some resemblance to several new metal 3D printing processes revealed this year by Markforged, Desktop Metal and Admatec. Whereas Markforged and Desktop Metal print thermoplastic materials that encase metal powders using an FDM-style method, Admatec developed a DLP 3D printer that prints a photopolymer loaded with metal particles. All of these processes produce green parts that are then sintered in a furnace.

Bredemeyer pointed out that, while similar to the other processes, Programmable Tooling does not load the shells with metal. Instead, the injected material is filled with metal. “It’s a similar concept, but instead of metal being in the photopolymer, it’s all in the injection material,” Bredemeyer explained. “When doing a continuous [DLP] cycle, I think it would be quite difficult for the metal particles to be dispersed properly inside of the photopolymer, so I think we have a pretty good edge when it comes to injecting this into the shells.”

A green state stainless steel part. (Image courtesy of Collider.)
A green state stainless steel part. (Image courtesy of Collider.)
 To develop metal materials that inject properly in the Orchid system, Collider has to develop these materials inhouse. So far, the company has created a 316L stainless steel and a copper material, but Bredemeyer said that it’s possible to use a wide variety of metals and metal alloys. Similar to how Desktop Metal promises the ability to use many metals found in metal injection molding, Programmable Tooling should be able to use a similar range of materials.

Orchid in the Market

When Collider came out of stealth mode last year, the start-up explained that it would begin by printing parts for customers. At Disrupt, the company announced that it is now opening up its Orchid system for beta testing, with the first 10 machines expected to ship in Q4 2017. In 2018, Bredemeyer hopes to move the system into full production.

The Orchid 3D printer has a build volume of 14 in (355 mm) x 12 in (304 mm) x 8 in (203 mm) and a vertical speed of 14.2 in/hr (36 cm/hr). (Image courtesy of Collider.)
The Orchid 3D printer has a build volume of 14 in (355 mm) x 12 in (304 mm) x 8 in (203 mm) and a vertical speed of 14.2 in/hr (36 cm/hr). (Image courtesy of Collider.)

When it does enter the market, there will be a variety of applications. For metal, Bredemeyer said that one of the first things printed was a shift lever for a motorcycle, something that might traditionally be cut with a CNC machine. The surface quality and speed of the Programmable Tooling process may provide speed benefits that a CNC machine cannot offer.

“There are a wide variety of applications,” Bredemeyer said. “Such as remanufacturing car parts that are no longer in existence. I think we’re going to be able to reduce part inventory for low-volume manufacturers, when it doesn’t make sense for them to warehouse their metal parts.”

Because Programmable Tooling already makes up for a number of drawbacks found in 3D printing, such as weakness along the Z-axis, speed and a limited material portfolio, it was a contender for one of the most exciting technologies to be recently announced, such as Carbon’s continuous liquid interface production.

The addition of metal kicks it past other indirect metal 3D printing processes, like those from Markforged, Admatec and Desktop Metal. With the ability to produce both industrial-grade plastic parts and metal parts, Collider’s Programmable Tooling should be catching the hype of all of the aforementioned companies and become a strong contender for winning the Startup Battlefield.

To learn more about Collider and register for a beta machine, visit the company website.

Update 5/17/17: Though Collider did not win the Startup Battleground at TechCrunch Disrupt, the company was the runner-up in the competition, just behind a mobile recording studio startup called RecordGram.

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