Thursday, March 2, 2017

Possible Breakthrough in 3D Metal Printing?

Design News headlined this story as, "Teen Invents Liquid-Metal 3D Printer With Potential to Transform Manufacturing", and while it's technically true, he was a 19 year old college student. I probably would have worded that as "College Freshman Invents ..." but that's probably quibbling.

It's important enough as it is.

Regular readers will recall that I did a story on the first 3D printed metal 1911 from Solid Concepts back in November '13 when that story broke, and I've been following developments with printing metal since then.  That printer was a rather expensive industrial level printer based on the concept of Direct Metal Laser Sintering, which uses a bed of powdered metal and then uses a laser to very precisely heat and fuse the powder into usable metal.  The motion of the laser creates solid metal in the powder and grows the part layer by layer.  Even with that cost barrier to adoption, metal printing has grown to have a big impact, particularly in aerospace.

The story here is an entirely new way of 3D metal printing, printing molten metal itself, in the form of precisely controlled droplets of molten metal that solidify as the metal is laid down.

Five years ago, Zachary Vader was a 19 year old student at the University at Buffalo (NY).  Realizing that the really fun and interesting parts of engineering school wouldn't come until his fourth year, he worked on other projects.  He designed a micro-gas turbine generator and soon came to the conclusion that it would be too expensive to produce.  That led him to decide to that 3D Metal Printing was the key to getting costs down.  Zach had a resource that it's arguable nobody else would have: his father, Scott.  Scott happened to be a pioneer in 3D printing fiberglass and was familiar with how 3D printers work.  Scott had the idea of using molten metal and controlling the droplets much like an inkjet printer.  The metal would be controlled by magnetic fields, a field known as Magneto Hydro Dynamics, or MHD.  Zach and Scott formed Vader Systems, basically a family company. 

From Design News:
The breakthrough in Zachary’s invention came when he thought to expose molten metal in a confined chamber with an orifice to a pulsed magnetic field, the Vaders said. The transient field induces a pressure with the metal that ejects a droplet, which was the key to making droplets of liquid metal eject from a nozzle.

Now Vader Systems is producing and marketing the machine Zachary invented, with the younger Vader serving as CTO of the company. Scott Vader is CEO while Zachary’s mother, Pat Roche, is the company controller.

The machine represents a major leap forward in the ability to print 3D objects in metal, according to University at Buffalo engineers. While other metal printers exist, most use a process of laying down powered metal and melting it with a laser or electron beam. This process is flawed because some particles of the powder do not get melted, creating weakened spots.

In the Vader Systems machine, called the Mk1, an electrically pulsed magnetic field permeates liquid metal in an ejection chamber and creates circulating electrical currents that interact with the magnetic field to produce a pressure that squeezes a droplet out of the ejector nozzle.
Vader Systems is promoting their "Mark I" version, saying "Production in 2018", so it's still under development.  The prints look like they could stand quite a bit of finishing, but I'm not sure that's their emphasis.  Still, they quote some impressive stats that they say it will make. The fact that they can print one pound of aluminum per hour at a "90% cost reduction" compared to laser sintering is the kind of quantum leap 3D metal printing needs.
Build envelope
12” x 12” x 12”
(300 mm x 300 mm x 300 mm)

Material Capability
Aluminum and its alloys
(4043, 6061, 7075)

Droplet Range
200 to 500 micron

Build Rate
1 lb per hour based on 500 micron droplet size

Speed vs Powder Bed Fusion
2x Faster

Part cost vs Powder Bed Fusion
90% Reduction

Vader Systems seems to be a mix of the startup and University at Buffalo researchers, which will very likely get them to market faster than just the father and son team could make it.
The Vaders have secured UB engineering faculty and students to work closely with them. Scott Vader reached out to the university after he and Zachary already were working on the invention in the basement of their home. Now the company has three faculty advisors and have won grants from UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness and Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology, as well as and a National Grid grant through UB to further develop and promote their technology.

Vader Systems also has hired several engineers based on its connections to UB, is looking to hire more, and is currently setting up its production facility and business infrastructure in Getzville, N.Y., near Buffalo, Vader said. “Additionally, we’re establishing strategic partnerships and working with our early customers to deliver our first systems,” he said. 

The current  home printers that work in plastics are said to be quite a bit higher quality than the early printers from ten or even five years ago.  I suspect we're going to see metal printing go through a similar improvement ramp in the next few years.


  1. Almost sounds like a liquid metal "ink jet" printer!

  2. I have to ask - is Zach's middle name "Darth"?

    1. I'll be honest: it was all I could do to not put at least a half dozen Darth Vader jokes in there. And then I almost ended the article with something like, "Go ahead; throw in your Darth Vader jokes, now".

      "Scott said, 'No, Zach, I am your father' "

  3. The 3D printer concept is going to be one of those breakthrough inventions. Have you seen the 3D printer that builds full scale houses? The combination of 3D printer technology and robotics may well change everything. A 3D printer could make your food in the future or build your car. In fact 3D printers could build 3D printers.

  4. Tech is already there, and it's already being used. In the aerospace industry is all I can say about it legally. It is a way to deposit and form materials too thin to machine from solids. The future is already here. Problem is not getting the tech to work but dealing with the phsical limitations of the available materials. In Aluminum you are confined to a minimum droplet size, with other materials the material can practically be a mist.

    1. I linked to some examples of products at the end of the third paragraph. It is just products, though, not techniques. I guess the bottom line is that I know something is out there, just not what.

      Personally, I think that the first metal printer that gets into that roughly $1000 class that marks consumer/desktop is going to revolutionize everything. Ignoring the heat or other treatments that might be required for high performance alloys, think about how big a change it would be having the ability to print something like mild steel hardware, or brass hardware for home plumbing or any of the tons of metal sold every year that's not very critical. What if you could print something and then say, put it in your oven at some moderately high temperature and heat treat it?

      Right now, anyone could print a plastic part and investment cast it in aluminum, brass, or some other metals. Printing it directly in metal would save a lot of effort to get to metal.

  5. "Jay Leno's Garage" on YouTube has a good video with the vendor Jay is using to do this.

  6. My company, a major centrifugal gas compressor manufacturer, printed an impeller as an R&D project to understand its viability last summer. The R&D director advised it saves much time (days instead of weeks) but the material cost is not viable (maybe 4x cost of a milled impeller). He did not summarize the metal qualities and how it compares, but I'll ask..
    Our company is over 100 years old and I feel this technology (and possibly nanocarbon) will revolutionize our industry in the coming years. This is real high tech merging with "old" tech, which I am feeling is th next frontier.