Ford Motor Company and ExOne Company (Nasdaq: XONE) have announced that together they have achieved a patent-pending method for 3D printing aluminum 6061 parts using binder jet technology. Upon sintering, the aluminum items have physical properties comparable to die cast components.
According to SmarTech’s “Aluminum Additive Manufacturing 2019 Outlook and Database”, the aluminum 3D printing segment is growing at a rapid pace, with the material shipments increasing at 43 percent in 2018 from the previously. In part, the excitement around the metal is that it is seen as a key material for lightweight, more affordable end-use part production, particularly in the automotive sector.
However, the existing options for aluminum are limited to cast alloys like AlSi10Mg and, more recently, aluminum F357. In part, this is due to the fact that the initial focus for metals were those used in aerospace, such as titanium and nickel alloys, rather than automotive favorites like aluminum. Additionally, aluminum is a difficult metal to weld due to the fact that aluminum alloys have a wide range of solidification so that, during processes like laser powder bed fusion (L-PBF), large cracks can form with columnar grains and cracks spreading across layers.
Therefore, the achievement by Ford and ExOne is a remarkable one, as it will allow Ford to utilize the advantages of 3D printing (unique geometries, size and weight shrinkage, part consolidation and performance optimization) with the lightweight aluminum 6061. Additionally, the partners on the project claim that the use of their binder jetting process for aluminum is actually faster than L-PBF.
Harold Sears, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing, spoke of how the technology will impact the automotive industry: “This is a breakthrough in making 3D printed and sintered parts for the auto industry. While the 3D-printing process is very different than stamping body panels, we understand the behavior of aluminum better today, as well as its value in light-weighting vehicles. High-speed aluminum 3D printing paves the way for other opportunities that we’re just now starting to take a look at because of the ability to do complex parts with aluminum that previously weren’t possible. It’s really opening doors for other opportunities.”
Ford initially purchased several of ExOne’s initial industrial sand 3D printers in the early 2000s, with which it was able to produce san molds and cores for metal casting. Since then, the auto company has continued to invest in ExOne machines, including their 3D printers at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Mich. and in Ford’s U.K. facilities. In 2019, the two businesses set about applying binder jetting to aluminum parts, with Ford conducting the final material and repeatability testing. Next, the partners will determine how best to apply aluminum 3D printing.
Interestingly, the news comes on the very same day that Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM) announced its ability to 3D print aluminum 6061 from Uniformity Labs with its Production binder jetting system. One senses a great deal of competition between ExOne, the inventor of metal binder jetting, and Desktop Metal, the young upstart, as ExOne announced its own office-style metal 3D printer soon after Desktop Metal unveiled its upgraded office-style system. Both are capable of 3D printing metal parts without the need for a debinding step. Regardless of who follows whom, both are contributing to the growth of bound metal printing, which SmarTech Analysis projects in its “Bound Metal Additive Manufacturing Market Outlook – Metal Binder Jetting and Bound Metal Deposition” to grow at twice the rate of the overall metal additive manufacturing market over the next ten years.
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