The Fabbaloo team recently toured Precision ADM, a growing metal 3D print service.
We previously visited the company 18 months ago and were impressed with the operation then. Now they seem to have expanded their scope of operations and added more equipment to meet demands from clients.
The business of metal 3D printing is far more complex than most realize; there are significant challenges to achieve the desired object quality, as is required when the prints are for production use, not prototyping. Precision ADM seems to have a reasonably-large sized squad of engineers and quality assurance personnel to work through the details of each metal 3D print job to ensure it works and achieves the desired quality. Here is a standard test object they frequently use, but the right parameters are often unique to the print job:
To that end Precision ADM has obtained certifications, perhaps the most important being ISO 13485, allowing them to produce certain types of medical implant parts.
It seems their enthusiasm about acquiring the certification caused them to print it in metal:
Precision ADM supplies metal parts to a number of clients.
As you might expect, they produce a large number of medically implantable hip cups, such as this one. Note the incredibly complex surface structure. This is done purposely to allow the recipient’s body to “grow into” the part and form a solid joint.
Another highly unusual application they’ve been working with recently is the production of parts for use in military exoskeletons.
Here we see some sample parts from the application, which typically involves customizing the part dimensions for the wearer:
Another interesting application is advanced molds for thermoplastic production.
While these molds may be traditionally made with CNC mills, the advantage of 3D printing is that venting channels can be easily created in any required location and direction. Here we see one such mold with the vent holes visible:
One critical aspect of producing medical implants is the control over the environment.
Precision ADM allocates one EOS M-290 metal 3D printer specifically and only for titanium production. If they were to occasionally 3D print other metal powders with this machine, it could potentially contaminate medical titanium prints.
Not only do they limit the materials on that machine, but they also keep it in an environmentally sealed room to avoid any contamination.
This is important because approximately 15% of the population is allergic to nickel material, which is 3D printed on neighboring machines.
The material isolation goes beyond the machine and room, and must include any tool that comes in contact with the print or material.
Metal 3D printing is always exciting to watch, but here you can see one of the challenges of metal 3D printing: spatter.
As the powder is blasted by the laser, small bits are sprayed in all directions. This results in the powder being contaminated with chunks of material that are larger than the normal powder particle size. These must be sieved out after the job completes – and done in a completely airtight fashion to avoid moisture contamination.
In fact, the entire printing process occurs in a specialized atmosphere, not only to avoid moisture but to avoid oxygen. Some powders are explosive and mixing an explosive material with high energy from a laser is usually not a good recipe for success.
On the EOS metal 3D printers you can choose either Argon or Nitrogen atmospheres, and Precision ADM happens to be using Argon in this case. They tell us they recently switched to using a liquid source, which apparently has several advantages over conventional bottles.
One interesting add-on they’ve devised is an alert system.
Should the machine fail or power down, this external detector will provide an automated alert to their staff 24×7. When failures do occur, this saves considerable time that could be critical if there is a hard deadline for a job.
Once a job is complete, there is much work yet to do.
The prints are literally fused to the print plate, shown here. As you can see, the plate is quite thick to resist warping when exposed to the tremendous heat of printing.
The prints themselves must be sliced off the plate, and that’s done by a wire EDM machine.
Here we see this machine in operation: the plate is actually submerged and a wire is precision fed to slowly gnaw the parts off the plate.
Sometimes the surface quality of the print is insufficient for the application, and so Precision ADM uses a 5-axis CNC machine to perform any required surface finishing.
Here is one of the unusual things you’ll see in metal 3D printing: these parts have turned blue as the Titanium oxidizes.
In this case it doesn’t corrupt the parts in any way and is easily removed.
Precision ADM seems to be doing quite well; so well that they’ve expanded and are now setting up an EOS M400-4, one of the largest metal 3D printers you can buy.
Interest in metal 3D printing has simply exploded in the past year or two, but most companies who express interest have little understanding of the complexities of achieving quality metal 3D prints. That’s why metal 3D print services are probably the place to start.
Via Precision ADM