Digital Metal introduced its binder jetting 3D printing technology back in 2013, though its printer, the DM P2500, wasn’t made commercially available until last year. Since its introduction, Digital Metal technology has produced more than 300,000 components, and the printers are capable of producing up to 40,000 components at a time in serial production. Digital Metal is at the forefront of true production-level additive manufacturing, and now the company is about to take a huge leap forward with the introduction of a fully automated production concept.
The new process will be controlled by a robot, eliminating virtually all need for human hands. The robot will feed the 3D printer with build boxes and then move the boxes for post-treatment in a CNC-operated de-powdering machine that is combined with a pick-and-place robot. The parts will be placed on sintering plates as the remaining powder is removed and recycled. The first robot will then move the plates to the sintering furnace, where debindering and sintering will take place. This can be used either for batches or for continuous production.
“Most AM technologies show a very low level of automation,” said Ralf Carlström, General Manager at Digital Metal. “Our aim is to change that. With the new no-hand production line, our customers can further improve their productivity and lower the production costs. Almost all manually intensive work can be eliminated and in addition the powders removed in the cleaning machine can be recirculated in the process, thus minimizing waste. As we see it, the Digital Metal technology is now applicable for serial production of high-volume components.”
During the de-powdering stage, the CNC-controlled movements are based on the information from the printing process. All of the removed powder is collected and recycled without any degeneration of properties.
“We believe there is a huge potential for our unique technology,” said Carlström. “Not only is it very fast and cost-effective, it is also able to create complicated and highly detailed designs with wide material choice.”
Other companies have been working toward full automation in the additive manufacturing process; one example is Project Skywalker, which was initiated by Voodoo Manufacturing. Digital Metal’s process, however, is more complex as it involves the extra steps of de-powdering metal parts, rather than simply removing them from the build plates. This brings additive manufacturing closer to being a real large-scale production method, removing the need for human intervention throughout the process. Digital Metal describes itself as “making great strides into territories previously ruled by conventional manufacturing technologies,” and that’s never been truer as it creates a hands-off 3D printing factory.
Digital Metal’s technology is an extremely precise type of binder jetting; the company isn’t just pumping average components off the production line. Skeptics of additive manufacturing as a legitimate manufacturing process will need to take a hard look at what Digital Metal is doing; its new automated production process takes the technology a big step forward in challenging more traditional manufacturing processes.
Digital Metal will be at the formnext conference next month, which is taking place in Frankfurt from November 13th to 16th.
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