Wisconsin: Zero Barrier Labs is Trying to Make Metal 3D Printing 17 Times Cheaper

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While many companies are keenly interested in the advances 3D printing is encouraging today—along with additive manufacturing processes making use of a variety of different metal powders to create strong, durable, yet lightweight parts—startup costs can be cost-prohibitive. The team at Wisconsin’s Zero Barrier aims to help others learn more about 3D printing, along with bridging the gap in challenges for others to actually make use of the technology.

Currently, they have plans to open a factory in Madison, WI, where others can send in their 3D designs for printing and then pick them up after a swift turnaround time. They also hope to commercialize their own metal 3D printers subsequently. The startup, founded two years ago, is comprised of a team of engineering students from UW-Madison who met through the university Hyperloop Team. Fast forward to the present moment, and they have created a metal 3D printer meant to streamline the fabrication process further—and especially for other designers and companies who would like to farm out the work.

“There are lots of companies out there that aren’t able to easily prototype, before they get an idea of whether they’ll be able to make a lot of money in the market,” said Evan Wolfenden, co-founder and CEO of Zero Barrier. “By having a technology that is able to allow mass production on such a large basis, and make it affordable…I’m opening up the field to all kinds of products to enter the market.”

Not only does Zero Barrier allow Wolfenden, an already experienced mechanical engineer, to keep his hands in a wide range of different projects pertaining to 3D printing with metal, he also enjoys being able to offer services to others that would not be affordable if they had to buy all the hardware and software on their own; in fact, he reports asking one company for a price to 3D print a 1kg object, and receiving a quote of $2,600 (which they apparently found expensive and we wouldn’t necessarily depending on the object!).

The new startup, currently funded by Wolfenden and friends and family, will offer 3D metal printing services which they project will be 60 times faster and 17 times cheaper than existing technologies. The Zero Barrier 3D printer builds objects out of inexpensive metal powder that contains light curable polymers that are hardened by UV light. The inexpensive metal powder may point to them using MIM powders for their builds. Their technology is not binder jet or SLM/DMLS powder bed fusion nor is it the FDM/FFF polymer filaments with metal inside but another way of printing metal. We’re not sure how it works exactly but looking at the prototype the assumption is that either the system works with UV curable silver or other metal photopolymers/UV inks cured through a DLP projector that can be turned into a green state model which is then sintered.

Solid Ground Curing by Cubital was a technology that could print metal and ceramics in the nineties; check out this mid-1990’s video below. You can also 3D print metal parts using stereolithography and this 1997 paper details how this can be done.  A  resin with photoinitiators for “photocurability, dispersants to maintain low viscosities at high solids loadings and the sinterable ceramic or metal powder” is turned into an SLA object which is then cured. Then the “photopolymer binder is removed by thermal decomposition and the part is sintered to impart high density and give the desired metal or ceramic properties.” A 2008 paper by Bartolo and Gaspar describes recipes and methods for using stereolithography to make metal parts.  We’re not sure if it is this technology and UV curable inks and resins have come a long way over the last 25 years. The team will have issues with part deformation and warping during the build as well as further problems with sintering however and will get variable results at different wall thicknesses, geometries, and part sizes if this is the path that they chose.

Light-based metal printing solutions are also being attempted by Photocentric and BASF is working on trying to make metal and ceramic UV curables as well. 3D Systems also has the venerable multi-step Keltool process in place and this 3D Systems patent details a more direct curable paste method. There is also a  MIM industry that is injection molding polymer/metal combos as well and they have yet to fully control the sintering stuff either. One can also go directly from the photopolymer to lost wax casting as well which is being done for millions of 3D printed dental and jewelry models, this process usually requires manual finishing and a strong manual labor component but it remains to be seen how Zero Barrier Labs’ technology will outperform this,

“I’ve been really blessed in my life,” Wolfenden said. “I’ve had a world-class education at a world-class university. I have all these things available to me. So I feel like I have an obligation to do the best I can, so that I can give back to others, and build a foundation for others to follow in.”

While they currently have a workshop at the UW-Madison Makerspace at the Engineering Building, Wolfenden and his team of three other engineers plan to refine their 3D printer further and move into a facility of their own in Madison. Their company is also currently a finalist in the Governor’s Business Plan Competition, a contest that encourages technologically-based startups.

“My future customers are going to be the smaller guys,” says Wolfenden. “Students, researchers, people working out of their garage.”

3D printing in metal is no longer the wave of the future, but is a manufacturing many businesses—from smaller to those leading in industry—are relying on to provide parts that can be easily customized and then printed in low volume or mass production, whether they are making history with voluminous 3D printed gear wheels for automated processes, more efficient heat exchangers, or satellite antennas.  Find out more about Zero Barrier and their plans for 3D printing with metal here.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

[Source / Images: The Cap Times]

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