That of 3D printing is an industry where every new idea, every new approach, is a potentially disruptive revolution in manufacturing. This is no exaggeration; additive manufacturing is changing the way we think of physical objects and matter itself. XJet’s metal ink jetting technology may be the most significant such change yet.
While innovation goes fast in this industry, the truth is that, especially in metal 3D printing (which is the most rapidly growing segment),nothing really new has been invented recently. The past decade has been mostly about process optimization for two main technologies: powder bed fusion and powder bed binder jetting.
However, the evolution of 3D printing technologies and material science have progressed to a point where researchers are beginning to find new ways to “play” with metal materials, using nanotechnology and finding more ways to print it. We’ve begun to see metal pastes being extruded through “bioprinting devices” such as Voxel8’s or even EnvisionTEC’s 3D Bioplotter, and even mixed with plastics.
Today, we can extrude metals, melt them, and bind them. Why not inkjet them? That is what XJet’s founder began to ask himself almost 10 years ago. Now we are getting very close to getting the answer to this question.
When I first found out about XJet’s technology I thought that this metal inkjet printing process could be revolutionary. Shortly thereafter, I was fortunate enough to meet the company’s CBO, Dror Danai, at the formnext show in Frankfurt, through some of my contacts at Stratasys. As I was already heading to Israel, I organized a visit to the company.
I got to XJet’s HQ in Rehovot, the technological hub near Tel Aviv where Stratasys, HP-Indigo, and several other tech giants have their headquarters (next to the Weizmann Institute of Science). This is a location with one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the world. I expected to find a small office with some drawings and schematics. Instead, what I found was a finely-tuned, multi-floor R&D structure, with several PhDs, chemists, engineers, and labs with hundreds of thousands of dollars (even millions) in equipment. And the XJet test machines already running.
What does it mean to inkjet metal nano particles? It is a bit complex and I did not record any information, so I cannot explain every detail. This is a totally new technology and not an evolution of PolyJet technology, primarily because there is no UV curing involved (among other reasons) and very high temperatures utilized in the creation of the part. One possible way to think of it is that of making sandcastles by dripping wet sand, which dries and solidifies as it is being deposited.
The metal ink is jetted through piezo-print heads, like in other jetting technologies. This ink is basically a mixture of metal nanoparticles in a liquid. This offers several advantages over powder bed (both laser and binder) technologies. One is that it can use particles of all different sizes, which self-arrange in order to create a structure that is fully dense, even more so than regular, microscopic, atomized metal powders. Another is that there is no need for inert atmospheres of argon gas or vacuums, since the XJet process uses liquid rather than solid state metals. This makes it a safer process.
One more advantage is that, since you don’t need the powder bed, you can use just the material that is strictly necessary: less waste and lower costs, especially with more expensive and even precious metals. It does not end here: XJet technology is also significantly more precise on Z-axis resolution than any metal technology. The pieces that Dror showed me were amazingly detailed (I cannot reveal the exact thickness of the thin walls, but I have never seen anything like it) and perfectly smooth, right out of the machines.
One disadvantage, on the other hand, might be the need for oven post-processing for the more heat resistant metals. However, it is the XJet team’s opinion that it is easier to automate the firing post-process rather than the milling and powder bed cleaning required for powder bed technologies. .
XJet has some very serious and large investors behind it. The support has been increasing as the commercial release date nears. Several high profile customers are already lining up. Millions have been spent on research and development already, but there is a very accurate strategy behind the company which comes from the XJet’s team extensive previous experiences. Hanan Gothait is the CEO and previously co-founded Objet, which became the 3D printing industry leader after the Stratasys merger.
Objet began as a small startup and grew into a multi-million dollar company in an industry that was just a small fraction of what it is today. All of this experience, and much greater capital, are now being used to build a company which is openly set on becoming the metal 3D printing industry leader within the next decade. Hanan and the entire team are here to make a big change and they are very passionate about it.
I do not believe that – even if it will achieve all its goals – XJet will replace all powder bed and energy deposition technologies. Just like AM will not replace all traditional manufacturing. However, it will give manufacturers unprecedented possibilities and could truly skyrocket 3D printing into a new era. The countdown has begun.