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New Microwave Process Could Change Metal 3D Printing Pricing

 A prototype metal 3D printer that uses microwaves instead of lasers [Source: Fabbaloo]
A prototype metal 3D printer that uses microwaves instead of lasers [Source: Fabbaloo]

A new microwave-based process for 3D printing could dramatically drop the cost of metal 3D printing in the future.

The process, invented by Russia-based 3DSLA.RU is apparently capable of working with a variety of powder materials, including ceramic, metal and thermoplastics, but for the moment the company is wisely focusing on metal 3D printing.

Their unnamed process is very similar to the standard powder bed / laser approach used by so many metal 3D printer manufacturers: an energy source (laser or electron beam) strikes a flat bed of fine powder, selectively sintering it. A fresh layer of powder is added, and the process repeats until an entire object is created.

Microwave 3D Printing

That’s exactly the same with 3DSLA.RU’s process, with one major exception: instead of a laser, a microwave beam is used. The system is able to focus the microwave beam down to a point between 0.050-0.004mm wide, where it can melt powder. The rest of the process is essentially the same as standard powder bed / laser approach.

 Lousy view of the toolhead of a prototype metal 3D printer that uses microwaves instead of lasers [Source: Fabbaloo]
Lousy view of the toolhead of a prototype metal 3D printer that uses microwaves instead of lasers [Source: Fabbaloo]

So far the company has successfully tested 3D printing steel, cobalt chromium and other metals, although they explained to us that they are still working on aluminum powder.

Microwave 3D Printing Gas Mixture

I was contemplating why this approach has not been done before, and casually asked what type of gas is used to purge the oxygen from the build chamber during printing. Usually nitrogen or argon is used in such processes, depending on the powder material being used.

The 3DSLA.RU representative explained that it is argon with some “additives”. It then was revealed that this specific gas mixture is the secret to the process: the chemistry of the gas mixture combined with the microwave heat allows the process to execute. This is why no one else has used microwaves thus far.

In fact, it seems that the gas mixture is actually the “secret sauce” for this approach, and is being carefully guarded by 3DSLA.RU for obvious reasons.

Microwave 3D Printing Cost

The most interesting aspect of the device is the cost. The machine uses a microwaves instead of a laser beam, so it needs only a system to generate microwaves. This is typically done with a magnetron.

The 3DSLA.RU representative explained that it is cheap, “like oven in kitchen”, and costs only US$100. This is essentially free when compared to the heavy costs of the high power lasers used in other competing metal 3D printers, and should drop the price of a machine considerably.

We were told the current device is only a prototype, and that their next step was to enable melting of a layer in “one flash”, which sounds to me much like DLP-style resin 3D printing, except here it is with powder. I presume they will somehow arrange the microwaves to assume the shape of the entire layer at once. If this works, it could dramatically speed up metal 3D printing jobs.

After this is achieved, the company expects to put the machine on sale.

For €10,000 (US$11,000).

Whoa! That is spectacularly less than any metal powder 3D printer, as they tend to be in the multi-US$100K range, and far less than the so-called new inexpensive cold metal 3D printing processes, which are about US$100K.

Obviously, if this works then there could be a significant shake up in the metal 3D printing world, as possibly for ceramics and thermoplastics (SLS) as well. We were told several “big peoples” visited the 3DSLA.RU booth, including the head of a major metal 3D printer manufacturing company, who spent two hours discussing things. Thus it’s also possible the new microwave technology could be licensed by a big player as well.

Via 3DSLA.RU (Russian)

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