No heat, no laser, no powder: reinventing 3D-metal printing

September 19, 2019 //By Jeff Herman and David Pain
3D-metal printing
Fabric8Labs developed a patented new technique based on electrochemical deposition that will make metal additive manufacturing industry-ready. It is lower cost than laser-based processes, good quality and easy to scale.

The technique does not use thermal processes, lasers or powders, but an electrochemical bath and micro-electrode array as a printhead. With the support from imec and imec.xpand the printhead was adapted to use thin film display technology, allowing for high-resolution 3D-structures to be printed.

Most state-of-the-art processes use a thermal technique that fuses metal powders together. Right now, this requires machines with complex laser systems, but also the metal powders are very expensive. That, of course, really limits the applications for 3D-printing. Fabric8Labs’ answer to this hurdle is called ECAM or electrochemical additive manufacturing. Inspired by a similar electrochemical deposition technique in the semiconductor industry for making very small structures for MEMS devices, they developed ECAM into a flexible solution for the 3D-printing industry. This technique does not use any thermal processes, lasers or powders, but instead is purely based on electrochemistry. The starting material is an electrolyte bath with metal salts dissolved in solution; the printhead is a micro-electrode array. By selectively activating the electrodes in the preferred pattern, a current passes through the bath and deposits the material.

Why electrochemistry beats lasers and powders

Fabric8Labs’ high-resolution generation 1 printer.

One of the main advantages of this technique is the lighter price tag. The cost of technology is lowered in two ways. First, the printer itself is cheaper because the expensive components from a traditional metal 3D-printer, such as the laser, are not present. Secondly, and most importantly, the electrolyte in the ECAM-printer is significantly lower cost compared to metal powders. The consumables are consequently an order of magnitude cheaper than what the competitors are currently offering.

That’s only half the equation. The fact that you’re building parts on an atomic level also comes with an advantage in terms of quality. When fusing metal powders together, you can end up with microvoids, rough finishes and thermal stressing issues. The ECAM-process does not suffer these issues since it builds atom by atom, resulting in fully dense items with very good surface finishes.

Finally, another advantage of this technique over a laser system is that an entire layer is built at once rather than scanning a laser across the build surface which makes it easy to scale. Together with imec, Fabic8Labs is therefore looking into opportunities to develop the print-head for larger and larger sizes. Currently, the printhead – and thus the printing area – is limited to 1 square inch (25 by 25 mm), but that will scale up as the technology progresses into print-heads the size of a large monitor or TV. That allows you to produce parts at low-medium volumes or very large pieces. This is simply not possible for the laser systems. They would need to continue adding lasers to get the volumetric building volume to continue to scale. Whereas for the ECAM-technology: the bigger the print-head, the more area you can build in one go.

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