Parallelization to Scale Up Metal Additive Manufacturing: Markforged CEO Details the Roadmap

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Over the last few years, we’ve become quite familiar with Massachusetts-based Markforged, the company behind some of the strongest innovations in 3D printing today. Known already for reinforced 3D printing at the desktop with high-strength materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar, the company also introduced metal desktop 3D printing early this year when they unveiled the Metal X at CES. The company’s CEO, Greg Mark, recently reached out to fill us in on the latest focus at Markforged as the company looks to take on scale production in metal additive manufacturing.

Manufacturing with metal is an activity of such import that several eras of human history have been named in honor of these advances; millennia beyond the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, we now seem to be entering the Metal Additive Manufacturing Age. It may not be as catchy, but following centuries of work with molds to realize metal production, breaking (free of) the mold is an accolade-worthy advance indeed.

What Markforged proposes is a revolution built on incremental improvement, or rather, a big change made from several smaller key components. A print farm isn’t necessarily a new idea when looking to take 3D printers to industrial production — we’ve seen this with Voodoo Manufacturing’s approach to low-volume production, for instance — but what is novel here is the advent of a print farm using desktop-sized metal 3D printers aided by… microwaves?

Sample parts made on the Metal X [Image: Markforged]

Sintering — sealing the layers to ensure a solid 3D printed object — is a key component of metal additive manufacturing as each layer laid down must fuse together with previous and subsequent layers. For products created on the Metal X, the technology put to use in this process is called ADAM, or Atomic Diffusion Additive Manufacturing. Metal powders are contained in this process in a plastic binder which melts off after the print job finishes and the part is sintered. The ADAM process cuts costs and time in metal production, even allowing for more complex geometries, like closed-cell honeycomb infill, than in other metal AM processes. But sintering in a furnace takes time. The Metal Injection Molding (MIM) industry is familiar with thermal sintering in a furnace, where the process is used to create, as Mark explains, “end-use parts for medical, aerospace, and consumer applications.” Further, he says:

“The sintering step burns off the plastic binder and causes the metal powder to diffuse together into 99.7% dense metal. Sintering furnaces start under $30K and process parts into their finished state overnight. A full stack production furnace runs $800k and is designed to keep up with an injection mold – so it can handle the part output of a 500-1000 unit print-farm.”

Greg Mark with the Metal X at CES 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

When overnight just won’t do for turnaround time, Markforged has turned to a quicker process: microwave sintering. Parts can then be produced in hours, as powdered metal absorbs microwave radiation in a way that solid metal does not. Mark explains this process as it pertains to Markforged:

“Once the powder reaches its sintering temperature, it fuses. At these high temperatures, even solid metal absorbs microwave energy, and the sintering process can complete the ramp to full temperature. In house, Markforged has been microwaving ADAM parts with a 90 minute cycle time.”

Mark goes on to proclaim a bold goal: “unlocking printed metal production at scale within 2 years.” While 5,000 years of metal molds have proven to be an effective way of creating products, Markforged is ready to move beyond the mold into “true digital metal manufacturing.” These claims are bold indeed, particularly when coupled with a busy week in announcements surrounding metal 3D printing, from Desktop Metal’s unveiling of its two anticipated metal systems to BeAM announcing pre-order availability. To learn more about what sets Markforged apart in this increasingly busy space, I turned to the source, with A Few Questions For Greg Mark.

How realistic is it to expect metal 3D printing at scale within the next two years?

“Today, you see GE making thousands of production parts on 3D metal printers. Why? The cost for that geometry makes sense. As we bring the cost down by a factor of 10x, and simplify the process, you will see an explosion in the number of end-use 3D printed metal parts.

For the record, when we invented carbon fiber 3D printing; I never said you would see an explosion in printed parts for serial production. At the time (2014), everyone was saying it, except us. You find the composite parts in tooling and fixtures. It’s a killer app for composites. On the metal side, the ADAM process gives you a casting without a mold. It’s 1-1. Like for like. At 1/10th the prior cost. In two years, you’ll see that cost continue to plummet.”

 

Markforged 3D printers are located around the world [Image: Markforged]

What makes Markforged technology the winning system to reach scale production?

“3D printing today is living in the time of mainframe computers. We’re building only scalable architecture for a 3D print farm. In order to achieve this, you need:

  1. a process that scales below $1k per socket (ADAM).
  2. a high-precision, low-cost platform enabled by smart sensors (onyx one)
  3. advanced fleet management software.

We’re the only company in the world that does all 3 – or even 2 of the 3. That’s why we will win.”

Greg Mark and the Mark X at SOLIDWORKS World 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

How will developments through 2019 lead to substantial price drops making more affordable print farms possible?

“It will take us 1-2 product generations to enable the same reliability with low-cost instances. We’ve brought new processes to market before (continuous carbon fiber) so we know exactly what the learning curve looks like.”

What can you tell us about the microwave approach to sintering?

“It’s really fast. We didn’t invent it. It’s been done for 15 years in academic research. There are a few interesting facts. First – powdered metals absorb microwaves. This lets you get the sintering run started. Second – hot metals absorb microwaves – which is how you complete the run after everything has started to fuse.

In addition to being fast – you get a finer grain structure. This enables even stronger parts. However, it’s not currently done in metal production, which is why we view it as a prototype process that will take time to prove itself in production applications. Thermal sintering, on the other hand, is currently used in medical and aerospace applications – it’s a known art.”

After stainless steel, what do you expect to be the next metal to market for this system?

“Tool steel. There’s been huge demand for that. “

17-4 Stainless Steel Sprocket, with 1375°C peak furnace temperature, 90-minute cycle time [Image: Markforged]

Do you think manufacturing is ready to step away from the mold?

“Think 1 to 1,000,000. Right now, 3D printing metal lives in 1 – 20 at best (after which you CNC or mold). We’ll take it up to 2,000 – 5,000 parts right off the bat. Every year, that number will grow by leaps and bounds. You’ll see 50k-100k in 2 years. When the shape complexity is greater, the number you print will go up.”

What has customer reaction been to the proposed sea changes in manufacturing?

“People are excited. When they hold the parts, and see the potential, it’s amazing.”

The vision may be bold, but the vision is there — and under Mark’s direction, the road ahead is well mapped. With a team of highly trained engineers and diverse thinkers behind it, Markforged seems set to propel itself forward as a leader in the future of additive manufacturing, as well as of manufacturing itself.

Discuss in the Markforged forum at 3DPB.com.

 

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