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An Explosion of Metal-based RP Systems

December 13, 2003

Filed under: additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 09:56

Twelve companies now offer products that produce metal prototypes layer by layer. That’s right: 12 of them. 3D Systems and EOS (Germany) use laser sintering, while Concept Laser (Germany), F&S/MCP (Germany), Phenix Systems (France), and Trumpf (Germany) use laser melting. Arcam (Sweden) also melts metal powder, but it uses an electron beam as the energy source. Optomec, POM, and AeroMet use lasers, although they do not spread layers of powder. Instead, the powder is deposited in the path of the laser, creating a weld pool.

ProMetal jets a binder onto the surface of a powder layer using an inkjet print head. Similar to parts from 3D’s laser sintering, ProMetal parts undergo a heating operation that melts away the binder and infiltrates a second metal, such as bronze, to bring the parts to full density. Meanwhile, Solidica uses ultrasonic welding to laminate aluminum.

Surface finish is a consideration with most of the processes. Many of them can, or will in the future, produce a surface similar to a sand cast finish. Without adding a step or process, it’s unlikely that they will match the surface quality of a CNC-machined part, with the exception of Solidica, which includes CNC milling as a part of its process. For some applications, it may not matter, but for others, such as tooling, it does matter.

It’s interesting to watch this amount of RP activity centered on metal materials. It shows that a lot of people, investors included, believe that these processes will play a role in the future of metal part production. The problem is that the market is currently not big enough to support all of them, so some will disappear or merge with another company. From a customer’s perspective, the challenge will be to determine which ones will survive and thrive.