The recent TCT Show was an excellent opportunity to hear about many of the latest developments across the 3D printing industry, as the busy show highlighted new machines, new software, new materials, complex creations, and increasing interest in metal technologies, as well as affording a setting to sit down with executives behind some of the innovative companies in additive manufacturing today — and those of tomorrow. In addition to spending time at booths and in presentations, some of the most interesting conversations I had during the show were quieter chats over coffee. During one such sit-down, I met Dr. Kevin Eckes, an American biomedical engineering PhD working as an R&D engineer with Belgium-based startup Aerosint, to learn about a new, patent-pending powder bed 3D printing process.
“We’re developing a selective powder deposition technology that we believe will make SLS-like 3D printing much less wasteful, will enable economical printing of expensive high performance polymers like PEEK, and also can make possible cool things like multi-material printing,” Eckes told me ahead of our talk in Birmingham.
I was fully intrigued when we sat down together, and what Eckes told me of Aerosint’s work did not disappoint. Aerosint traces its origins back to early 2015, with an original idea requiring what the company describes as “multiple iterations and deep technical validation which took 21 months.” Technical feasibility proven, Aerosint was born as a company in September 2016, filing its first patent then. Funding from the Walloon Government, as well as private investors Meusinvest and the Innovation Fund, in 2017 allowed for some expansion as the team grew a bit and funding was put toward prototyping for the initial idea. The first prototype of the Aerosint dispensing technology began then, with integration into an industrial polymer 3D printer to allow for a proof of concept.
“We have a patent-pending powder dispensing technology for a selective powder deposition system, with a patterning speed similar to an SLS recoater,” Eckes told me. “The benefit here is that we save on powder. We don’t need to recycle material, because we only put it down where necessary; we’re trying to circumvent that completely. We fuse only polymer areas, and use a cheap silica or alumina non-fusible support material… there’s a potential to do lighter, easier-to-remove supports.”
He noted that they have demonstrated deposition of complex shapes using polymer materials, with 1mm-500μm resolution. Working already with PA-12 and TPU, the team would like to expand into additional capabilities soon, and they have their eye on working with high-performance materials like PEEK more affordably, materials scientist Eckes explained. Additional plastics, such as PEKK and PPS, and metals are also in sight; the company also notes that their dispensing technology “works with virtually any type of 3D printing powder: polymers, metals, ceramics, organic…” leaving the door open to additional developments.
The team, which developed the technology ahead of establishing specific applications that will best benefit from its use, has been driven by innovation to create a low-waste, multi-material 3D printing process adaptable to both polymer and metal powders. Their system keeps powder inventory low by keeping its use to only absolutely necessary areas, offering what Eckes described as a less dense build due to the lightweight support material.
Eckes acknowledged some similarities in the team’s work to existing 3D printing technologies, from SLS to MJF to other work ongoing elsewhere in Belgium. Some of the mechanics behind their work are reminiscent of what HP is doing with their Multi Jet Fusion technology, particularly on the voxel level of control in deposition. Eckes also noted work from Dr. Shoufeng Yang at KU Leuven, who is working toward somewhat similar research. The multi-material capabilities in different forms of powders does seem to set Aerosint apart, however.
“Our powder dispensing technology works with polymers and metallic powders,” Edouard Moens de Hase, Aerosint Co-Founder and CEO, told me today as they go public with their technology.
“Currently we are finalizing our first printer prototype for polymers. The prototype is a retrofitted industrial SLS printer from 1997 in which we have integrated our patterning drums. Once finalized we will be able to demonstrate the benefits of a multi-powder process. Some of those are for example: uniform sintering to improve greatly the printing speed, zero waste printing by using a non-fusible support material that can fully be reused, multi-material printing, affordable printing of high performance materials (no waste), improved parts cleaning (no cake formation)… We will be communicating about those over time.”
The non-fusible support material is key to material savings, as it can be completely reused due to its lack of reaction/degredation during the sintering that fuses the preferred build powder. The process, Aerosint explains, is based on the selective deposition of powder voxels in a layer-by-layer manner, with sintering occurring uniformly for polymeric materials or via laser for metals that require higher temperatures. Speeds of two seconds per layer are reported for the scalable, robust (up to 400°C) system.
“We are fulfilling the initial vision of Carl R. Deckard, the inventor of SLS in the eighties, which was to successively melt layers of powder composed of a fusible and a non-fusible powder. This vision could, by the time, however not be realized resulting in the laser sintering technology like we know it today,” said Moens.
The team are now, after all their initial groundwork, ready to go public with their developments, and are looking for industrial partners (interested parties can contact Aerosint). They are also looking, Moens noted, to test the market and identify potential applications.
“We have today successfully retrofitted an industrial SLS system into a first functional prototype of our technology. In the next few months we should be able to demonstrate the numerous benefits of our multi-powder sintering process for polymers. Metal developments are also under way. We will communicate about those in due time,” said company Co-Founder and CTO Matthias Hick.
Aerosint’s technology offers some interesting promise, and definite room for growth for the young enterprise. We’ll be following with interest future developments as polymer and metal processes continue to progress, and as applications and partnerships emerge.
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