The bound metal printing (BMP) segment has experienced a great deal of renewed interest due to the activities of such companies as Desktop Metal, Markforged, and ExOne, but we can’t forget about Digital Metal. As a metal 3D printing service provider and machine manufacturer, Digital Metal is a subsidiary of Swedish multinational Höganäs AB, the world’s largest producer of powdered metals. Now, Digital Metal has announced the most recent material for its metals portfolio: pure copper.
Though it may be a niche part of the larger metal 3D printing segment, copper is still expected to grow quite significantly. SmarTech Analysis anticipates that 1.4 million kilograms of copper powder, both pure copper and copper alloys, will ship for AM use by 2029. As detailed in SmarTech’s ”Copper Additive Manufacturing 2020–Market Database and Outlook” report, there are numerous key uses for the material.
Due to its high thermal and electrical conductivity, copper is great for electronics, heat exchangers, heat sinks and engine parts. For instance, copper 3D printing is currently thriving in the production of induction coils for use in industrial manufacturing for heat treatments, brazing, welding and other processes. COVID-19 has also allowed the material to shine for its antimicrobrial properties, resulting in reusable copper filters and copper door handles.
Two examples provided by Digital Metal are a bullhorn antenna and a heat sink. In the case of the former, the company highlights the ability to choose a shape best suited for a given application, as well as the ability to amplify the proper frequency, all while using thin walls and ribs, reducing material usage. Due to the complexity of antennas, 3D printing could be less expensive than traditional manufacturing.
Heat sinks 3D printed in copper could provide enhanced heat transfer properties, with specialized geometries only possible with 3D printing further improving the design. Digital Metal states, “In this heat sink, the baseline TPMS structure is modified in three dimensions to get thicker walls and wider air passages near the base and thin, closely spaced walls at the top, which distributes heat optimally and allows strong natural convective flow.”
“Printing with pure copper using Digital Metal’s binder jetting technology is one of the most anticipated material launches ever, and totally new within binder jetting. Copper has been high up on our customers’ wish list and timing is perfect with the demand for copper applications soaring in fast growth areas such as e-mobility and heat conductivity. We have been developing the process for some time internally, but I would really like to emphasize the value of the excellent cooperation with key customers in our fast-growing Digital Metal User Group. It has been a great help and we are now very pleased to deliver a high-quality copper process for Digital Metal binder jetting”, said Christian Lönne, CEO at Digital Metal.
It makes sense to see copper added as a standard material for a binder jetting company, as the metal is not so easy to 3D print using the more abundant powder bed fusion (PBF) 3D printing technologies. Due to its high reflectivity, PBF machines must be modified to 3D print with copper, including through the use of blue or green lasers. BMP, therefore, may be initially better suited for 3D printing with the stuff. For that reason, we’ve seen both Desktop Metal and Markforged both announce the availability of pure copper for their metal extrusion systems in 2020. ExOne has already had copper for its binder jetting technology for some time, but it will be interesting to see if its metal extrusion system, the Metal Designlab, is capable of printing with copper as well.
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