3D printing metal on a desktop FDM printer, exclusive interview with The Virtual Foundry founder

Is 2017 going to be the year for 3D printing metal? Recently 3D Printing Industry reported announcements from Markforged about their forthcoming Metal X 3D printer, a drop in the price of metal additive manufacturing with the OR Laser machine and a decrease in the size of machines with InssTek’s DMT MS250.

I spoke with Brad Woods of The Virtual Foundry to find out more about his plans to bring 3D printed metal to a wider user group.

3D printing with copper

Suddenly every industry is starting to realize what 3D printing can do,” he tells me. Woods has developed a range of 3D printing materials called Filamet™. This material is sold in rolls and bulk pellets. It is currently available in copper, with more metals planned for release this year.

Filamet™ is a highly infused 3D printing filament and early adopters have found a range of uses for the product. The combination of FDM 3D printing and Filamet™ produces attractive and unique prints with a satisfying weight. Once printed, secondary processing using a kiln and The Virtual Foundry’s “Black Magic Powder” produces a pure metal print.

A photo sent to me illustrates the end result. “We leave the print layer lines in these so you can see the level of detail that is reproduced. It also helps with the skeptics, but I think we’re past the unbelievers by now.”

The Virtual Foundry 3D printed metal cone.
The Virtual Foundry 3D printed metal cone.

Woods calls this the “hello world” 3D print. It serves a similar purpose to 3D Benchy and is, “a good way to gauge success and diagnose issues.” Woods has spent the past 3 years developing and refining the material used to create these 3D prints. This has paid off and Filamet™ can be used to produce dense metal components as cutting the 3D print with a diamond band saw reveals.

The Virtual Foundry 3D printed metal cone cut-away.
The Virtual Foundry 3D printed metal cone cut-away.

Woods explains how the dense metal components undergo a 3 stage firing process.

The final temperature and time at that temperature determine strength, density, ductility, etc. We slowly ramp up to 1800f then hold it there for 2.5 hours, details are in the training materials. 1800f is the stage where the particles weld to one-another creating a structurally sound object.

The whole firing process takes about 4.5 hours. The final product has the same physical, electrical and thermal properties as copper.

Whether the 3D print is actual metal is still a regular question from potential users. For clarity says, “it absolutely is pure metal.” Woods tells me that questions about shrinkage are also common.The level of shrinkage is, “a surprising 1.5%. It is about the same as typical casting methods used in various industries. The shrinkage is also very consistent and can be easily accounted for in your 3D print.”

Large Scale Additive Manufacturing

Working with 3D printed metal in this manner is only restricted by the capability of the FDM printer selected. Woods tells me that the material has promising applications for use in Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM) printers. I have recently seen the results of 3D printing with the material at a larger scale. Unfortunately, this work cannot yet be shared with the wider 3D printing world as it is subject, as is so often the case these days, to an NDA.

Other potential applications are in the energy and power generation markets. 2017 is certainly shaping up to be an interesting year for 3D metal printing and having refined the material formula The Virtual Foundry are, “Starting to experiment with higher-end printers. The plan is to see exactly how far we can take FDM printing in both quality and scale.”

Filamet™ can now be purchased directly and from retailers across the world, and The Virtual Foundry has an active community of users who discuss uses in a forum here.

Nominations are now open for the 1st Annual 3D Printing Awards, let us know if you think this metal 3D printable material should receive an award here.