Jonas Galle, the CEO and Co-founder of ValCUN, recently shared insights into the company’s journey to make metal additive manufacturing more accessible.
In 2013, while working on a PhD project, Galle’s need for uniquely crafted parts for a novel rocket engine led him to the 3D printing world. However, he found conventional milling was not efficient or optimal for requirements, while metal powder-based systems were very expensive. Fueled by inquisitiveness and a lack of satisfactory answers regarding the cost structure, Galle embarked on his own venture. This endeavor, initiated in 2016, aimed at introducing a new method of metal 3D printing with an initial focus on aluminum that was both efficient and economical.
Galle’s drive to dedicate himself entirely to this idea led him to quit his engineering job in 2018. The same year, he was joined by co-founder Jan De Pauw, an acquaintance from university days, who believed in Galle’s vision and officially became a part of ValCUN in early 2019. By this time, the company had attracted national funding, enabling them to expand their operations, hire employees, and transition from a garage setup to an industrial facility.
By 2021, after much research and development, ValCUN was ready to present its proof of concept. Today, they proudly offer their first commercial metal 3D printer to the market, marking a significant leap from the company’s inception in 2016.
ValCUN and accessible metal 3D printing
ValCUN has unveiled a unique approach to metal 3D printing, and Jonas Galle sees potential to reshape the industry.
Driven by the demand for easy-to-use metal 3D printing, Galle sought a solution accessible to the mainstream metalworking sector. Instead of employing powders and lasers, ValCUN’s technology leverages off-the-shelf and easy-to-handle materials. ValCUN uses a wire-based material and an FFF-like process to create structures on a build plate. This process enables one-step fabrication, with completed pieces easily removable from the build plate without additional cutting processes.
Galle emphasized the minimal post-processing requirements of their creations when compared to the necessary buildplate cutting, support structure, and powder removal of power bed fusion methods. While some pieces might need minor post-print adjustments, the company’s methodology allows for high overhangs above 70° without additional support. This is attributed to the technique’s ability to manage thermal stresses efficiently by slower cooldown rates and the controlled solidification of the liquid metal. Importantly, the process circumvents the need for de-binding or sintering used in other 3D metal printing methods.
Galle believes ValCUN’s approach could mark a new era for the 3D printing sector, making it more accessible to a broader range of industries.
Without delving too deeply into the proprietary aspects, Galle highlighted that while other well-established AM firms faced metal extrusion challenges, ValCUN found the right balance. The company leverages the differences in physical properties between polymers and metals to their advantage, turning perceived disadvantages into benefits.
While Galle was cautious about revealing the intricacies of the process, he noted that they utilize aluminum due to its lower melting point and its extensive use in the industry, among other reasons. Interested parties curious about the technology will need to purchase the machine to study it further.
Galle also announced that the commercial machine will come at a significantly lower price tag than its direct competitors, and importantly, it’s ready to print without the need for environmental modifications. Currently, ValCUN’s machines are functional in standard office spaces and can be equipped with optional air extraction and filtration systems.
ValCUN targets affordability and integration
ValCUN’s 3D printing technique, which capitalizes on aluminum’s attributes, may revolutionize lightweight structures and heat exchangers. Galle highlighted the potential of integrating various functionalities, such as heat extraction, within a single component. Notably, this approach facilitates electronic enclosures that simultaneously manage heat dissipation and uphold electromagnetic compatibility.
While the company’s current collaborations are predominantly with universities, Galle disclosed active projects focusing on business cases for near-net shaping, heat exchangers, and catalytic converters. Their strategy targets the academic sector initially, transitioning to industrial applications subsequently. ValCUN’s endgame is to foster a more accessible and economical 3D printing system, especially for workshops. Engaging with multiple workshops in Belgium, the company discerned that the high costs and unfamiliarity with prevalent 3D printing techniques were a significant deterrent.
The metal wire technique sidesteps the complications and risks of metal powders. Cost-wise, Galle underscored the stark advantage of ValCUN’s process, deeming it exponentially more affordable, sometimes by a factor of up to 100, compared to powder bed fusion methods. The key attributes include swift processing, energy efficiency, minimal post-production requirements, and high potential for automation.
The company’s ambitious vision involves something other than replacing existing powder bed fusion methods, Galle envisions ValCUN’s process complementing traditional milling and casting operations. He remarked that while powder bed fusion is apt for intricate and fine detailed components, particularly those made from materials like titanium, ValCUN’s forte remains with aluminum and other non-ferrous metals.
Discussing the reasons behind their focus on non-ferrous metals, Galle highlighted these materials’ high thermal conductivity and difficulty processing with other AM technologies. ValCUN’s method capitalizes on their low melting points, 570-660°C, and the challenges laser-based technologies face due to the reflectivity of materials like copper and aluminum.
Addressing the question of quality, Galle compared the turbulent nature of the powder bed fusion melt pool and welding technologies with ValCUN’s Metal Direct Melting (MDM) process, noting the latter’s serene, almost zen-like behavior of the molten metal. As per Galle, this serenity reduces the introduction of gases and leads to fewer flaws and thermal cracking. This opens up the potential of ValCUN’s technology to process industry-requested high-strength alloys such as 6xxx and 7xxx series. ValCUN boasts impressive tensile strength figures, with 85% in the z direction and 90% in the x-y direction, compared to the standard requirements with excellent repeatability with a standard deviation below 5%.
ValCUN Targets €3 Billion Slice of €80 Billion Metal Manufacturing Market
ValCUN has ambitious plans to embed its molten metal process in metal workshops globally, eyeing a substantial portion of the €80 billion metal manufacturing market.
Galle spoke about the market potential. “So the goal is to bring our technology to every metal workshop. And that market is huge,” he said. Galle indicated that, while aluminum comprises 25% of this market, approximately 4%, around €3 billion, is deemed suitable for their additive manufacturing approach today. However, the potential remains high, with plans to deploy at least 600 systems by 2030, targeting revenue of €70 million that year.
Highlighting their path to market, Galle stated, “So we want to expand, of course, the team, we are now with only five people.” The company’s immediate strategy involves aligning with academic institutions to refine their product and gain valuable feedback. Afterward, the focus will shift to the industry, preparing for widespread commercial release.
Reflecting on the challenges faced by startups, Galle offered pragmatic insights into the characteristics of a founder, “People in general don’t think the same way. As founders, they’re convinced this will work, we’ll make it happen. But people, as long as they don’t see anything, are skeptical.” He emphasized the importance of having a tangible product before seeking investor funding.
When growing a business, Galle believes it’s important to keep things simple and not get swayed by detractors. “Ignore the naysayers. I hear them, but I don’t listen to them.” He confessed that negativity often fuels ValCUN’s drive, “If you tell us it can’t be done, make sure you’re prepared because we will do everything to make it work to prove you wrong.”
He elaborated on an instance when welding experts doubted ValCUN’s innovations. Galle said, “They said it will never work. We know welding, welding is there for so many years, that thing will never work.” He stressed that instead of wasting time convincing skeptics, the results would eventually change minds.
Galle elaborates, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” He underscored how critics changed their stance after analyzing ValCUN’s samples.
Galle further divulged ValCUN’s plans to showcase their technology at industry events like formnext, emphasizing the company’s shift from staying “below the radar” to building market awareness.
ValCUN Aims to Bring 3D Metal Printing to Space
ValCUN is set on another ambitious goal: 3D metal printing in space.
Galle expressed the advantages of their technique in a space environment. “The ideal environment is an environment without gravity and oxidation. So basically, space.” The aim is to print essential constructions for objects like beams for solar panels directly in space. He elaborated, “Today, very complex folding mechanisms are made just to fit in the rocket to launch it into space. Why can’t we just send the printer to space and print the construction there? Once there, the only force is the relatively small acceleration forces, so more lightweight, simpler, cost-effective structures could be made.”
Commenting on the ideal use of materials, Galle noted the potential of using aluminum in certain space applications. “Aluminum is widely used for space applications, especially structures and frames. So it’s a very useful material, various things,” he remarked.
Learn more about ValCUN during Formnext 2023 at booth 12.0-E32.
Voting has now started for the 3D Printing Industry Awards 2023. Cast your vote now!
What does the future of 3D printing for the next ten years hold?
What engineering challenges will need to be tackled in the additive manufacturing sector in the coming decade?
While you’re here, why not subscribe to our Youtube channel? Featuring discussion, debriefs, video shorts, and webinar replays.
Are you looking for a job in the additive manufacturing industry? Visit 3D Printing Jobs for a selection of roles in the industry.
Featured image shows ValCUN Founders Jan De Pauw [L] Jonas Galle [R]. Photo via ValCUN.