Desktop Metal unveils new expandable foam 3D printing material, FreeFoam

3D printer manufacturer Desktop Metal has debuted FreeFoam, a new 3D printable photopolymer resin family that contains heat-activated foaming agents.

Invented by Texas-based materials specialist Adaptive3D, a Desktop Metal subsidiary acquired in 2021, FreeFoam can be programmed to expand anywhere between 2 to 7 times its original printed size without any tooling. The result is the production of tunable and durable closed cell foam parts, which are expected to see extensive use in sectors such as automotive, furniture, sporting goods, footwear, and healthcare.

Initially available exclusively on the ETEC Xtreme 8K DLP 3D printer, FreeFoam will be showcased at Foam Expo North America in Michigan from June 28-30. The Expo will feature a 3D printed FreeFoam car seat developed in partnership with Camaco.

“FreeFoam is one of the most exciting and commercially significant photopolymer solutions to come to market in the industrial printing space in years,” said Ric Fulop, founder and CEO of Desktop Metal. “The market for conventionally manufactured foam has many challenges – from expensive molds that limit designs to dense and heavy foams that absorb water and are expensive to ship and drive, to the inability to easily dial in strength and Shore hardness values in specific foam designs.”

A 3D printed FreeFoam car seat before (left) and after (right) expansion. Photo via Desktop Metal.
A 3D printed FreeFoam car seat before (left) and after (right) expansion. Photo via Desktop Metal.

The expansion of Desktop metal 

Based in Massachusetts and founded in 2015, Desktop Metal quickly became well-known in the additive manufacturing sector for its portfolio of metal binder jet 3D printers. Since going public on the NYSE in December 2020, the company has gone through a period of rapid growth with a plethora of acquisitions.

The expansions include the establishment of Desktop Health and wood 3D printing firm Forust. The firm bought out DLP 3D printer OEM EnvisionTEC in January 2021, which was rebranded to ETEC shortly after. Desktop Metal also acquired recoating system developer Aerosint and hydraulics firm Aidro a few months later.

August 2021 saw one of Desktop Metal’s biggest plays yet, when it announced the acquisition of competing binder jet 3D printer OEM ExOne for $575 million. The deal was approved in November, combining two of the industry’s leading binder jet firms.

3D printing custom foam parts with FreeFoam

According to Desktop Metal, more than 1.5 billion lbs. of foam is produced every year for bedding, seating, and a whole host of furnishing products. Conventional foam production involves cutting blocks of foam into smaller shapes as needed, which places a huge limitation on the geometries that can be produced while also resulting in significant waste from the trimmings.

Developed as part of Desktop Metal’s DuraChain product line, FreeFoam is designed to address these issues, enabling manufacturers to 3D print their foam products in any shape they desire. The resin can be 3D printed like any other via the DLP process, and expanded on-demand when heated at temperatures of 160 – 170°C in an oven.

The key to FreeFoam is the dispersed foaming agents contained within, which create closed cell pores throughout the material’s microstructure. These pores can expand to up to seven times their printed sizes depending on the exact grade of resin. Desktop Metal intends to offer several grades of the offering with different Shore hardness values and other properties such as water resistance.

Ultimately, customers will be able to 3D print parts much larger than the build volumes of the printers used to print them, slashing shipping space requirements and saving on logistical costs.

Fulop adds, “We’re especially excited to reveal our FreeFoam innovation in Metro Detroit, where our new foam material can help lightweight cars and trucks while preserving the performance and comfort expected in foam seating. With FreeFoam, Desktop Metal is ready to liberate the foam market from its many challenges.”

FreeFoam is set for broad commercial availability in 2023.

FreeFoam's closed cell microstructure. Image via Desktop Metal.
FreeFoam’s closed cell microstructure. Image via Desktop Metal.

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Featured image shows a 3D printed FreeFoam car seat before (left) and after (right) expansion. Photo via Desktop Metal.