As 3D printing technology improves, we’re seeing the gap between what’s possible with less expensive home printers and industrial-level machines grow narrower and narrower. One of the drawbacks of the small-scale, desktop machines has certainly been the limitations where printing material is concerned. While we’re tremendous fans of the thermoplastics, we also realize there are instances when your 3D design demands a material that is not only durable, but also emblematic of permanence.
While home printers that produce objects in materials like bronze or stainless steel are still in development, it’s possible now, for instance, to create a 3D model and then have the object printed in bronze and stainless steel and shipped to you in a matter of days. 3D printing innovator i.materialise can now give you an instant price quote once you upload a design and they can produce your 3D design in bronze or stainless steel and ship it to you in about two weeks (10-14 business days for bronze; 12-16 business days for stainless steel and high detail stainless steel).
To be clear, i.materialise uses different technologies to produce your 3D design depending on the material. If you want something printed in bronze, the end result won’t technically be 3D printed–but close. Here’s how it works with bronze: After your design is uploaded to the i.materialise site, it is 3D printed in wax and then covered with a fine layer of plaster. Then, they use a technique called lost wax casting. Once the plaster has hardened, the plaster-coated wax object is placed in an oven that is hot enough to burn the wax out, usually through one or more small channels created to allow it to escape. The channels are closed up in the plaster cast and then molten bronze is poured into the empty cast. In the final step, an i.materialise technician polishes and finishes the piece by hand.
When working with stainless steel, the technique is much closer to the additive process that characterizes 3D printing. Your object is produced when a special print head deposits layer by layer of stainless steel powder. As each layer is completed, it is dried by a very powerful overhead heater until the entire 3D print is accomplished. Once the 3D printing is completed, the object goes into a curing oven, where it is sintered–basically, this means that the material is heated as a whole rather than just in layers. Any excess powder that was not bonded and is not part of the original design is removed and the object is infused with bronze, which replaces the binding agent. Now the object is solid metal! The last step is polishing, as with the bronze printing. If your design is extremely detailed, the sintering is done in an oven that heats up to 1300°C. The high heat ensures that the details will be retained.
While, strictly speaking, the process for creating bronze prints doesn’t fully incorporate the additive technique that characterizes 3D printing, the incorporation of traditional methods in combination with cutting-edge technology still stands out as a more accessible and affordable alternative to producing small batch orders, rapid prototypes, bespoke art pieces, or hard-to-find parts. It’s an exciting step further into the future to be sure!