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July 26, 2013

South African Team Developing Metal 3D Printer with Different Approach

By Christopher Mohr, TMCnet Contributing Writer

A team of engineers from South Africa is currently developing a 3D printing process for metal much different from other methods available now. With a process similar to a 2D inkjet, I-AM 3D’s process would require less in raw materials than conventional processes.

A common method for 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process known as selective laser sintering (SLS). A 3D object is rendered on a computer running CAD software and the image split into layers or cross sections. These images will be sent to the printer to create a physical object one layer at a time.

Inside the printing area, a flat bed of metallic powder equal to the width of one layer is laid out on the printing surface. A laser melts the metal powder to form one layer of the object. The completed layer and surrounding powder are lowered and then another layer of powder is laid out. Lasers form the shape of the next layer and melt it to the previous layer.

While the process is effective, SLS requires having more powdered metal available than is needed to make the object. It’s not a big deal if you are using a relatively inexpensive metal like aluminum, but could be prohibitive with precious metals like silver, palladium or gold.

The I-AM 3D printer will print each layer using a metallic ink. Lasers guided by galvometer scanners will cure the ink to form the intended shape. The team has printed objects using gold, palladium and platinum-based inks and the process cuts waste to two or three percent. The size of the production printer is expected to be 24 x 16 x 19 inches, making it fit on most tables or desktops.

The project has been submitted to Indiegogo for crowdfunding. According to the proposal, the team seeks $25,000 to obtain a galvometer scanner, print head, laser and conversion software.

As the cliché goes, there is often a thin line between genius and insanity. In theory, the I-AM 3D team has a solid idea for an efficient printing process. Skeptics leaving comments on related sites however, cite a video that does not show much and that I-AM 3D’s proposal leaves out details. In their defense, the team has offered to provide technical specs to anyone that emails a request for them. 

The reality with any innovation is that someone has to be willing to take the risk to make it a reality. If it works out, you’re branded a genius; if it fails, a lunatic. The I-AM 3D team has taken that risk and if they are able to get a prototype that lives up to its design, it could revolutionize 3D printing.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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