Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is always researching new 3D printing technology. The latest is the Xerox ElemX metal 3D printer, which has just been installed at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF).
Xerox (NYSE: XRX) surprised many when it acquired metal 3D printing startup Vader Systems in 2019. It then spent until 2021 making the technology ready for market. At that point, it unveiled the ElemX system with the U.S. Navy as its first customer. This was followed by a purchase by Vertex Manufacturing, led by GE Aerospace metal 3D printing pioneer Greg Morris.
The machine is meant to be straight forward and easy to use. Processing low-cost aluminum wire, the ElemX can very rapidly 3D print a metal part onto a substrate. Once complete, the substrate is dropped into a bucket of water and the 3D printed item pops off the bed. Seeing the parts firsthand, you might note that they don’t present the finest surface finish. However, when you realize that they were made without any post-processing in a matter of hours, you realize the potential. Because it doesn’t rely on hazardous powders, it is marketed as being safer to use and doesn’t require the use of personal protection equipment in its operation. All of this is meant to make it ideal for spares, repairs, and low-volume production parts.
As you’ve read on 3DPrint.com, ORNL is involved in nearly countless additive manufacturing projects, which range from developing new 3D printers and optimizing existing ones to exploring new materials and applications. With ElemX, we can imagine that ORNL will be able to experiment with potential uses, materials and more.
“Developing metal AM technologies that are simpler to install and integrate into existing manufacturing operations will be key to increasing adoption throughout the industry,” said Xerox Elem Additive General Manager and Vice President Tali Rosman. “Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a long history of advancing innovative manufacturing technologies. This installation will enable us to further refine our liquid metal AM technology and achieve our goal of creating more resilient supply chains for our customers.”
“ORNL has a long history of working with industry on alloy deployment and the improvement of material performance in AM,” said Ryan Dehoff, section head for secure and digital manufacturing at ORNL. “This process is promising for high-volume applications such as automotive; leveraging our experience with alloy development will help us expand the available number of alloys and applications.”
When I spoke to Tali Rosman at Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022, she explained that Xerox has the largest patent portfolio dedicated to AM on the market—even bigger than Stratasys or 3D Systems. As she left Stratasys, she had a wide-open field to choose from in continuing her 3D printing career, but opted for Xerox as it embarked on its liquid metal 3D printing process.
Given that it has customers in U.S. government, we can be sure that Xerox has the right connections as well. As 2D printing and imaging companies shift away from those legacy technologies, Xerox could potentially be poised to be a leading player in the space. However, it’s still early days for the tech pioneer. It will first have to prove its ElemX machine and qualify more metals. After that, perhaps we will see some of those patents actually put to work.
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