LAS VEGAS — Printing metal has been one of the holy grails of 3D printing. For the most part, printed prototype parts are made of plastic or other soft materials. That greatly limits their use in many production applications. Unless you pony up for a bank-vault-sized unit that can print metal and costs a few hundred thousand dollars, you wind up with parts that may be useful for low-stress situations.
For production, or for high-stress or high-temperature situations, like engines, you needed to resort to traditional means of fabrication — usually machining. Ability 3D is hoping to change that, with a $ 3,000 unit that can fit on a workbench and can use a variety of metal.
Combination welder and machine tool
Cleverly, Ability’s printer uses a MIG welder to heat and extrude the metal substrate. Technically, the company says it can potentially work with any form of metal that can be welded, but for now they are focused on steel, aluminum, and stainless steel. In each case, the printer is fed from spools of the appropriate welding wire.
Like most metal printing solutions, to get smooth surfaces the extrusion unit needs to be coupled with a machine tool that can route out holes as needed, and finish off surfaces. You can see in the video below how the router is used in conjunction with the welder. The printer can create items up to 8-inches on a side — although anything that large will take quite a bit of time.
February cylinder test will reveal a lot
In February, Ability 3D plans to print an engine cylinder and install it in a working engine. If it can do that without having to do a lot of work on the part after it’s printed, that’ll be a huge milestone. I’m a little skeptical so far, as the company only had one small part to show here at CES, and it wasn’t anything fancy. However, if they can pull it off they’ll definitely open a new chapter in what’s possible for small businesses and high-end hobbyists. It’s not likely to put a dent in high-volume manufacturing, though, as the company estimates that the cylinder will take between 10 and 20 hours to print.
Home 3D printing got some bad press after the poor performance of much-hyped MakerBot. But for those willing to take some initiative, there are numerous affordable solutions suitable for at least prototyping. We covered a few of them in our 3D printer roundup from last year’s CES, and we’ll cover more in our roundup this year.
While Ability 3D has set a target price of $ 3,000, timing is dependent on the success of its Kickstarter project, which is launching in March. It sounds like there are still plenty of challenges left. But the promise of affordable 3D printing in metal makes it worth watching closely.
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