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The Future of Bound Metal 3D Printing for ExOne

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Bound metal 3D printing is becoming one of the most productive metal additive manufacturing (AM) technologies for creating high-performance parts on-site. One of the few firms pioneering this emerging technology is global AM leader ExOne. Known primarily for its metal binder jetting platforms, the company has announced its new bound metal AM technology, the ExOne Metal Designlab printer, and X1F advanced furnace through an exclusive partnership with the 3D printing startup Rapidia.

The groundbreaking new technology, an office-friendly metal 3D printer and low-cost sintering furnace, “operates with the ease of an entry-level plastic printer,” thanks to an innovative “water-based paste containing metals or ceramic powders.” The complete 3D printing system delivers what ExOne has trademarked as “Print Today, Parts Tomorrow” performance. The original two-step process skips long chemical or thermal debinding steps, which are standard on competing systems and result in a three- to five-day delay for final part delivery.

ExOne Metal Designlab. Image courtesy of ExOne.

The news was well-received by investors. Just moments after the announcement on February 8, 2021, shares of ExOne (NASDAQ: XONE) surged 18%. At its closing price on Monday, the 3D printing company’s stock was up a staggering 474% so far this year. Shares were up by 4.5% even in after-hours trading. The novel Metal Designlab printer could become ExOne’s flagship entry-level product, considering the company hopes to set the bar for bound metal 3D printing. Just hours after the launch, ExOne began receiving inquiries about the platform, which will be available for delivery in the second quarter of 2021 and is competitively priced at under $200,000.

“The Designlab launch has just been incredible for us this past week — more than expected, really. Our shares were already performing well year-over-year, but the customer response has been extremely strong, and we haven’t even shown everything we have planned for this new addition to our portfolio,” said ExOne CEO John Hartner. “In addition to metals, and a wide range of metals at that, we also plan to offer ceramics, and we have meaningful furnace updates coming to the new X1F. We don’t talk about it enough sometimes, but ceramics is a significant area of our business, and they’re challenging to form with traditional manufacturing, so our new 3D technology is really liberating for ceramics, and it’s also a perfect complement there to our existing binder jetting technology.

“We’re really envisioning educational and lab environments where a prototype or concept might be proved out at our new ExOne Metal Designlab and then moved to a nearby Innovent+ or InnoventPro printer for higher volume production, and both can share the furnace. Our new X1F furnace is about 10 liters of usable volume, but we have features coming to that product that are exciting, and we’ll be ready to reveal those in a month or two.”

ExOne CEO John Hartner. Image courtesy of ExOne.

Several years ago, the Rapidia team, led by founder and serial inventor Dan Gelbert, set out to develop a system that could quickly create even the most challenging or intricate parts. It also had to be environmentally friendly, simple to use, and easy to install in a typical office space. The result was a two-step 3D printing technology first revealed in 2019 that allowed water-bound metal and ceramic parts to go directly from a printer into a furnace without a debinding step. Most other “office-friendly” metal 3D printing technologies still require chemical-intensive and lengthy debinding processes. Instead, Rapidia’s novel system’s efficiency is made possible by HydroFuse, an innovative water-based paste containing metal or ceramic powders, which replaces 98% of the binder with water, which evaporates while printing.

“It is a fascinating technology—not only the fastest but the greenest. Other bound metal technologies use a high degree of polymer binders that end up burning out when they go into a furnace, producing smell and waste,” explained ExOne’s Chief Marketing Officer, Sarah Webster. “At ExOne, we are all about ‘making metal green,’ especially because there is a phenomenal amount of waste produced from traditional metal part manufacturing every day. So, we are motivated to help make green, lightweight metal parts for industries that churn out thousands and millions of components, like automotive and aerospace. What this technology brings to the table is reduced waste in the manufacturing process, the ability to produce lighter weight designs in high volumes, and decentralized supply chains. We believe every country deserves to have metal manufacturing closer to home, reducing shipping and having better access to critical parts, and that is a big economic and sustainability benefit. But it also de-risks the supply chain for companies. Businesses are just beginning to tap these benefits, but we believe the beneficial impact of this technology can be sweeping.

“Metal Designlab can get customer started in bound metal and our Pro-line binder jet printers can get people all the way to full production where benefits can be tapped in large volumes.”

ExOne’s bound metal 3D printing technology has the capability to create complex parts. Image courtesy of ExOne.

Hartner believes that a new ExOne is taking shape. Aside from Designlab and the working relationship with Rapidia, which has been in the works for a while, the company has taken a different approach with its new printers, making them more modular and smarter, with Industry 4.0 features. ExOne material capabilities are unparalleled in binder jet, helping the company remain a leader in the field.

“Suffice it to say, we’re a very energized company, putting meaningful, sustainable manufacturing technology into the market, expanding our reach across all metal production—from direct printed prototypes and parts to metal castings—and really intensifying the closeness of our relationships with longtime customers, who we’ve already been serving for years. We’re also expanding our reach in Asia, and our global marketing is better than ever. Our machines and message are very focused right now, and we have plans to take it further,” Hartner indicated.

SmarTech Analysis predicts that bound metal technologies are now expected to achieve close to twice the growth rate than the overall metal AM market over the next ten years. So, will bound metal technology accelerate the adoption of 3D printing? Webster believes so: “When we think of the metal 3D printing segment as a whole, what you had was more than a decade where laser 3D printing has been the dominant form of metal AM. Now, everyone is looking for an easier, cost-effective way to 3D print metal. Bound metal forms of 3D printing are a much easier and simpler route to form a part, and we believe this is going to ultimately increase adoption of metal 3D printing.”

ExOne has been looking to expand into bound metal technologies for a while. The strategic partnership with Rapidia was an ideal fit. The company is not new to collaborations though. Throughout the last decade, it has partnered with an impressive roster of big names across the manufacturing world, like Siemens, ANSYS, and Altair. With Rapidia, ExOne has a right of first refusal for majority ownership. It has incorporated Gelbart as a technology advisor and has an extended technology team with vast experience in the bound metal 3D printing market, so everyone is extremely excited about the new partnership.

“As we head out of COVID, we think the 3D market is going to continue shape-shifting a bit more, too, and we think more 3D companies will continue to get into binder jet 3D printing, where we’ve been leading the way for 20-plus years. But we plan to remain high-performance market leaders, and I think we’re going to grow in new ways, too. It’s just an invigorating time as global manufacturers to get more serious about sustainability and what our 3D technologies have to offer,” Hartner concluded.

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