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Rewriting the Rules of Making Metal Parts

April 26, 2008

Filed under: additive manufacturing,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 15:12

Last week I visited EOS GmbH (Krailling, Germany), a company that manufactures laser-sintering machines for plastics, metals, and foundry sand. By the end of my visit, it became clear to me that EOS is rewriting the rules for metal part fabrication. Conventional methods will not disappear, but a range of metal parts that would otherwise be machined or cast is now being produced using metal laser sintering. The company faces challenges, but it has made a lot of progress in the past few years.

The production of dental restorations using laser sintering is a good example of what is now possible. Dental crowns and bridges are traditionally produced as a custom product for individual patients. The process involves many steps, including the casting of a coping, which serves as the basis for the crown or bridge. Much of the expense is tied to skilled labor that occurs at the dental lab, so streamlining the process can dramatically impact time and cost.

EOS employs an experienced dental lab technician that has helped the company develop a start-to-finish process using its cobalt-chrome material for the copings. Using laser scanning and software products from 3Shape (Copenhagen, Denmark), the process guides the lab technician through the steps of preparing the copings for production on the EOSINT M 270 (metal laser sintering) machine. The data preparation is fast, thanks to the DentalDesigner software from 3Shape. And, the metal copings—380 of them—can be manufactured in 20 hours with little human intervention.

Many dental labs are small “mom ‘n pop” shops with a lot of experience and know-how, but are slow to change. Even so, some labs can see the potential of using laser scanning, good software, and additive fabrication as a competitive weapon. As they adopt the technology, the less progressive companies will have little choice but to also accept it if they want to remain competitive. As they do, the rules of making dental crowns and bridges will change forever.