Metal 3D printing company Desktop Metal has been awarded a three-year $2.45 million dollar project from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to develop a high-volume 3D printing process for the mass production of Cobalt-free hardmetals.
Desktop Metal’s proprietary Single Pass Jetting (SPJ) technology will be used to mass manufacture the cobalt-free hardmetal parts, made from a novel, iron-based nano material, at a rate of 200,000 parts from a single machine, per day.
“The novel Co-free hardmetal grade is expected to yield a high strength, high toughness, high hardness, and high wear resistance material,” said Dr. Nicholas Ku, materials engineer at CCDC Army Research Laboratory (ARL). “We believe combining this novel material with Desktop Metal’s Single Pass Jetting technology will have major applications not only in the defense sector but also in the commercial sector.
“Further, we believe this combined method will dramatically improve sustainability, reduce the use of a conflict mineral and provide an environmentally-friendly process to mass produce parts with superior properties.”
Desktop Metal’s SPJ technology
The Desktop Metal Production System is a large scale machine which utilizes SPJ technology – an inkjet and powder-based method of metal 3D printing. In comparison to conventional binder jetting methods, which use multiple carriages and pass over a build box to print each layer, Desktop Metal’s patent-pending bi-directional SPJ technology consolidates these steps into the motion of a single print carriage. This significantly reduces print time and removes unnecessary steps to increase the Production System’s mechanical efficiency.
In fact, the company claims the Production System can achieve print speeds up to 100 times those of legacy powder bed fusion 3D printing technologies.
Chicago-based advanced digital manufacturing company Fast Radius was one of the first companies to receive Desktop Metal’s Production System in 2019, as it looked to further expand its global metal additive capabilities. Shortly after, Ford Motors also integrated the Production System to accelerate prototyping and manufacture limited scale production parts, after leading a $65 million investment round for the firm.
Most recently, Desktop Metal merged with blank check company Trine Acquisition Corp to go public with its 3D printing business, a move which will see it listed on the NYSE with an estimated equity value of $2.5 billion. Following the announcement, 3D Printing Industry investigated what this transaction could mean for the wider additive manufacturing industry.
Mass manufacturing cobalt-free hardmetals
Cobalt is a naturally occurring element typically used as a metallic binder material for cemented tungsten carbide. While a critical component in items such as lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, Cobalt has also been linked with negative respiratory and dermal side effects, particularly to those who are mining it. The mining of Cobalt also poses environmental issues, such as increased radioactivity levels and polluted rivers and drinking water.
The ARL has therefore been investigating a replacement for Cobalt, culminating in the development of a patented cobalt-free hardmetal material that uses a novel iron-based nano material as its matrix.
Once the material had been developed, the U.S. Army Contracting Command tasked Desktop Metal with providing a cost-effective, high volume process able to print the novel hardmetals, on behalf of U.S. Army Research Laboratory to the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and the Advanced Manufacturing, Materials and Processes (AMMP) consortium.
During the project, Desktop Metal will develop a feedstock and binder system for the cobalt-free hardmetal. Without the use of tooling, the firm’s SPJ process will print the novel hardmetals into complex, net, or near-net shaped parts. The goal of the project is to print at least 200,000 parts per day from a single machine.
Desktop Metal will also deliver a cost analysis to step up its SPJ technology for the manufacture of at least 500,000 prototype parts. The company believes its SJP process will “lead the development” of a dual-use technology suitable to various commercial and DoD applications.
The carbide hardmetals sector
According to Desktop Metal, the carbide hardmetals market is projected to grow to $24 billion by 2024. Carbide hardmetals are used in multiple dual use applications spanning sectors including oil and gas, chemical and textile, agricultural tools, aerospace, defense, construction, and more.
Dr. Animesh Bose, vice president of Special Projects at Desktop Metal, will serve as principal investigator of the three-year project. A fellow of ASM International and APMI International, Bose has amassed 40 years’ experience in processing particulate materials.
“The success in this project will not only provide the hardmetal community with their eagerly desired Co-free hardmetal solution, but also result in the development of a tool-free processing technique capable of fabricating this class of materials into extremely complex shaped parts at speeds that can rival most other high-volume manufacturing techniques, opening op new horizons in the area of hardmetals and its applications,” he said.
It’s expected by the relevant parties that this project will aid in providing a more environmentally friendly way to mass produce metals, alloys, and other composite parts for both DoD and commercial applications.
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Featured image shows the Desktop Metal Production System, equipped with SPJ technology. Image via Desktop Metal.