More industries than ever before are purchasing metal 3D printers and using them to manufacture high-quality prototypes, test parts and end-run parts with geometries that could only be manufactured using a 3D printer. The average cost of a metal 3D printer will typically range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than a million dollars, pricing them well out of reach for most businesses. But despite a growing demand for cheap and fast metal 3D printing technology, it continues to elude the 3D printing industry. Unfortunately there seems to be very little on the horizon that is expected to change that any time soon.
However, material science has started to offer the industry a few alternatives in the form of metal-infused PLA filament for desktop FDM 3D printers. ColorFabb has offered several of these advanced materials that consist of 40% to 50% metal powders mixed with PLA, allowing the final prints to be polished and shined up to a metallic finish. Unfortunately, at the end of the day these are still mostly plastic parts, and they do not have the strength or durability of a fully-metal part. Metal filaments have primarily found themselves used throughout the hobby market and don’t really have any industrial applications that couldn’t be performed by stronger and easier-to-use industrial plastics and carbon fiber filaments.
Last year a Wisconsin-based startup named The Virtual Foundry launched a product on Kickstarter that promised to allow a standard desktop 3D printer to create fully-metal parts using the same basic FDM technology that is used to print with thermoplastics. Their Kickstarter campaign was fully funded, pretty quickly, and went on to exceed its minimum funding amount by about $5,000. The original backers of the campaign began receiving their rewards a few months ago, and the Virtual Foundry is now offering the filament for retail purchase from their website.
“Printer manufacturers have struggled for years to bring 3D Metal Printers down into a workable price range. Filamet takes a different approach. Rather than bringing the high-end down, it extends the capabilities of current 3D Printers up to those of the high-end machines. We expect materials to account for a large portion of near-term product innovation in the 3D Printing market. Our company offers an immediate solution to producing real and useful metal prints on the desktop 3D Printer that you already own,” said Virtual Foundry founder Bradley Woods.
On the surface Filamet is almost exactly like all of the other metal-infused PLA materials on the market. However, the metal powder content is significantly higher than other options, making the Filamet filament considerably heavier — and the final printed parts look much more like real metal. Much like those other filaments, all that you need to do is give the final printed parts a good polish and it will result in a highly metallic finish. Filamet, though, is made up of 88% metal powder materials and only 12% plastic, which means that it requires a lot less post processing to achieve its metallic finish.
Additionally, the higher metal powder content in Filamet allows any printed parts to be put through a finishing process that will burn off the PLA binding materials, sinter the remaining metal particles and leave a fully-metal part behind. In order to create the solid metal parts, it just needs to be baked off in a kiln so the plastic can harmlessly burn away while the metal powders bond together and solidify.
The Filamet materials can be 3D printed on virtually any standard desktop 3D printer, and are even capable of being used in handheld 3D printing pens. Currently the Virtual Foundry offers 1.75mm .5 kg spools of Filamet in Copper PLA, Bronze PLA and Bronze ABS for $85 a spool. The company is currently planning on expanding into different metal powders like a silver nickel material as well as a glass filament and a ceramic filament. The Virtual Foundry is also working with the US Department of Energy on the possibility of using the process to 3D print using uranium powder. Discuss this latest development further over in the Virtual Foundry & Metal 3D Printing forum at 3DPB.com.