3D printing ready for its next big sprint – metal

The people who helped make Israel’s Objet a power in the 3D printing world are now tackling a more sophisticated technology

A 3D printer (Pixabay)
A 3D printer (Pixabay)

What Israeli 3D pioneer Objet – now integrated with Minnesota-based 3D printing company Stratasys – did for plastic, Israeli start-up Xjet plans to do for metal.

“The layered inkjet printing technology that is used to make medical devices, dental implants, single-run samples for manufacturing, and much more is all based on plastic,” said Xjet CBO Dror Danai. “In the same way that Objet helped create an industry for 3D printing using plastic materials, we intend to create an industry that will allow the same kind of custom printing for metal.”

Xjet was one of a dozen start-ups that presented their technology at the annual Go4Israel conference in Tel Aviv Monday. Considered one of the most important gatherings of international investors in Israel, the conference discussed issues relevant to investors and start-ups, including raising funds and establishing strategic alliances between corporate, entrepreneurs and investors from around the world. Companies presenting at the event included firms in hi-tech, life sciences, renewable energy, and others.

The reference to the Israeli 3D printing company that was one of the creators of the 3D printing industry, is not coincidental; Danai and many of the 62 people working at the Rehovot- based company are veterans of Objet. Danai left before the company merged with Stratasys to create the world’s biggest 3D printing firm.

“Objet’s big innovation was inkjet 3D printing, using plastic materials like PLC,” said Danai. “At Xjet, we are developing an inkjet printing tech for liquid metal, the first time this is being done anywhere.”

The technology, said Danai, could revolutionize manufacturing.

“Right now, the only way to manufacture a piece of metal is by using a mold to fit liquid metal, which then solidifies,” said Danai. It’s the way everything metallic – from a pipe to a coin to a gold ring – is made. “To make an odd-sized piece, you first have to make up a new mold and measure it to ensure it has the right specifications for the machines that are going to produce it commercially. Manufacturing a single, one-time item is a very drawn out and expensive proposition that makes many metal parts very expensive.”

Such parts are used in rockets, spaceships, military jets, and other unique items, but for everyday use, such customized manufacturing is far too expensive and involved.

Enter Xjet, which, said Denai, uses nanotechnology to create special metal liquids that, using its 3D metal printing technology, can create unique, one of a kind items on the fly.

“We allow manufacturers to skip the mold stage, saving them huge amounts of time and money,” said Denai. “All the specifications are made in the software, and when it’s time to print, our nano-based metals are created according to those specifications.”

Dror Denai (Courtesy)
Dror Denai (Courtesy)

Since the specifications are transmitted to the printer by the software, the result is an exact rendering of the object as envisioned by its designer – with no need to readjust the manufacturing process, as often happens with molds.

Other companies involved in custom manufacturing use laser technology (using a system called DMLS, Direct Metal Laser Sintering), which is prohibitively expensive for any except the largest companies, said Denai; the inkjet technology Xjet is developing will allow production of customized objects much cheaper, he said.

The proprietary liquid metals Xjet is creating are based on nanoparticles of specific metals, stored in a special liquid solution that, encased in a tube, is inserted into its printers. “Because of the nature of the technology, each metal requires its own process to develop,” said Denai. “We are starting with stainless steel, and expect the printers and the liquid metal to be on the market in 2016. After that we will work on other metals. Eventually we hope to get to all the major metals used in manufacturing.”

The process of creating the metals is also unique, said Denai. “There’s a lot of chemistry involved, but we are a company that embraces the hard sciences. Fifty out of our 62 employees are engineers, and many of them are specialists in materials. Relative to our size, I think we may have the highest percentage of engineers of any tech company anywhere.”

The Xjet innovation opens up a door to unique possibilities, said Denai. “We could print out a titanium knee on the spot for a patient, instead of making them wait weeks for a custom design. We’ve already been speaking to a large maker of sports cars to develop unique add-ons for their high-end cars. This technology could be used to print out a car made out of steel and aluminum – not a plastic one, as has been attempted in the past. Using our inkjet technology we will be able to make customized metal manufacturing affordable for even small companies.”

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