Metal 3D printing is becoming one of the fastest growing sectors of the 3D printing industry and it is pretty easy to see why. There are several very different methods and technologies capable of printing in metal, but all of them have one important advantage over traditional methods of producing metal parts. Standard metal fabrication techniques are still very limited in the variety of part geometries that they are capable of producing. But with metal 3D printing, virtually any geometry that can be imagined by a designer is possible. 3D printing in metal is virtually the stuff of science fiction, yet the technology is real and rapidly becoming a key part of the manufacturing of complex rocket engine parts and revolutionary medical devices.
Additionally we are starting to see companies and designers expand metal 3D printing technologies beyond the rocket engine and focus on all the amazingly complex products that can now be printed. 3D printing technology manufacturer 3D Systems has just released a new collection of high end flatware designed by Finnish 3D artist and 3D Systems Creative Director, Janne Kyttanen. This stunning set of silverware is called Ice Breaker, and was 3D printed using their newest metal 3D printing process Direct Metal Printing (DMP). The Ice Breaker collection is just the latest in a growing trend of designers that are starting to explore new metal 3D printing technologies usually reserved for automotive or aerospace components and apply them to high end consumer products.
The Ice Breaker collection was inspired by the complex geometry and symmetry of ice as it cracks and splinters. By using the DMP process, 3D Systems is able to print an entire set of flatware at the same time with a shape that would not be possible with traditional metal manufacturing methods. The DMP process works like most metal 3D printing processes, a thin layer of metal powder is laid down on a printing bed, only rather than a laser simply sintering (melting the outside layer of the grains of metal to each other) the metal powder, the high-precision fiber laser melts each layer, completely fusing each grain together. Because the laser is so intense and the metallic powder melted so completely, each subsequent layer will bond directly on top of the previous layer without the need of bonding agents or any sort.
The metal objects created with DMP are fully dense with a homogenous microstructure and all of the produced parts have a density of 99.98%. With relative density levels that high, objects manufactured using DMP are essentially the same as objects produced using standard subtractive or casting methods. Because 3D printing is not restricted to the use of molds or the axes of metal milling machines, it can create objects with virtually any recesses, ribs, cavities or internal features. Essentially, designers are limited only by their imaginations and the capabilities of their CAD software.
Because the parts are literally assembled from small grains of metal powder, once a complete part is printed it will have a rough, sandpaper like finish. However the parts can easily be polished, making them completely smooth and indistinguishable from traditionally manufactured metal parts. The Ice Breaker collection is meant to be used with food, so for obvious reasons 3D Systems and Kyttanen chose to 3D print the flatware in stainless steel. However, the DMP process is also capable of printing complete parts in both Aluminum and Titanium, with several new materials on the horizon.
But before you get excited about the idea of custom 3D printed flatware, the DMP process is still pretty new, and at the moment quite pricey. While 3D Systems didn’t provide a cost to have the complete Ice Breaker set printed with their Quickparts service, it probably isn’t going to be cheap. The metal 3D printed sink faucets that I wrote about back in June were expected to range in price from $12,000 to $20,000, so an entire set of flatware is probably going to be priced well beyond most of us. However you can certainly request a price quote if you find yourself with a few thousand extra dollars to spend on silverware.
As with any technology, the more that it is developed, the faster that its price is going to drop. It isn’t out of the realms of possibility that in a few years anyone will be able to design their own customized flatware with complex geometries and have it affordably 3D printed for them. Let us know what you think of metal 3D printing technology and the Ice Breaker Metal 3D Printed Flatware Collection over at 3DPB.com.