Tests have shown that the Digital Light Processing (DLP) based technology developed by the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) and its partners, for the 3D printing of ceramic materials can also be made suitable for metals, which will be, and I quote: ‘providing a higher-quality alternative to existing 3D metal-shaping techniques.’ The advantage is that this process does not involve melting the metals, as compared with Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Electron Beam Melting (EMB) and so forth, resulting in ‘well-compacted, homogeneous and therefore high-grade’ materials.

The research at the ECN has demonstrated that it is feasible to use DLP technology to build up metal products in layers. Previously, the centre has supported the development of this technology for the 3D printing of ceramic materials in partnership with InnoTech Europe B.V. and Formatec Ceramics, leading to the founding of the company Admatec Europe B.V. Admatec uses 3D technology to manufacture high-grade ceramic materials and parts for a range of applications. Jan Opschoor, researcher in Materials, Testing & Analysis at ECN said: “We can develop these kinds of techniques because we have expertise in building up thin layers of material and in powder metallurgical shaping.”

The ECN is the largest energy research institute in the Netherlands and with around 500 members of staff, the centre is active in projects both native and abroad. The ECN collaborates on joint efforts with industry, government authorities and research institutes via its branches in Petten, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Brussels and China.

The advancement of the industrial grouping of processes known as additive manufacturing by standardisation, and now 3D printing in popular culture, has been cited by many knowledgeable insiders — ranging from significant users such as General Electric to industry analysts — as being innately dependent upon progression in materials science and variations of additive processes to increase efficiency and lower costs inherent to the material input to functional printed manufacturing output process. This breakthrough is, to my mind, evidence of another step towards this goal.

An important distinction to maintain for general readers is that this reference to industrial additive manufacturing, in many ways, especially in cost, separates it from 3D printing, which is often associated with the FDM/FFF process that features as the primary additive process used in home desktop 3D printers – a distinction that has caused slight confusion of late in some media.

The ECN is actively seeking partners in both the private and public sectors to prepare for market penetration. Opschoor stated: “We think that this technology will make a large number of new applications possible that could not be produced, or could hardly be produced, in the past.”

The market is already showing much interest in the various metals and metal alloys that can be used under such extreme conditions and in high-vacuum environments. This new DLP-based technology offers new possibilities for high-tech sectors, in particular, because machine parts could now potentially be produced that simply were not possible previously, involving a plethora of metals and alloys.