Protolabs has struck a deal with GE Additive to obtain one of the largest metal 3D printers available.
The Minnesota-based service bureau plans on firing up a GE Additive Concept Laser X Line 2000R metal 3D printer late this year.
Protolabs is one of the more advanced manufacturing services in the US, offering a variety of making services including injection molding, sheet metal fabrication, CNC machining, and of course, 3D printing. Currently they offer six different 3D printing processes, including DMLS, SLA, DLS, MJF, SLS and PolyJet, from a large collection of over 100 machines across their facilities. They offer a wide selection of 3D print materials for each process, and provide a number of post-print finishing options.
Protolabs is also one of the very rare 3D print companies that offers publicly traded stock, and you can find them on the NYSE.
The DMLM 3D Print Process
But if they already offer DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) 3D print services, why acquire a GE Additive Concept Laser X Line 2000R? There are plenty of powder bed fusion-style metal 3D printer options on the market, so I think it has to do with the specifications of this massive device.
One specification is that the Concept Laser X Line 2000R is actually not a DMLS device, but rather uses what GE Additive calls the DMLM process. While these two processes are extremely similar, GE Additive describes the difference as this:
“The direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) process uses lasers to partially melt particles so they adhere to one another. The DMLM process is very similar, except that the material is completely melted to create ultra-thin liquid pools, which solidify as they cool.
The term ‘DMLS’ is often used to refer to both processes, although the term ‘DMLM’ is gradually emerging as the preferred way to reference the process when complete melting occurs.”
That’s interesting, but the Concept Laser X Line 2000R’s big claim to fame is its build volume. This massive device includes a full build volume of 800 x 400 x 500 mm, surely one of the largest found for closed-chamber metal 3D printers available.
To put this in perspective, the machine literally includes a set of steps to enable you to gain access to the build chamber. That’s how big it is.
One of the reasons for the sheer size of the machine is the “tall printer effect“, which we explained in a previous post. Briefly, this is the requirement to approximate vertical paths for the lasers to avoid misshapen laser illumination dots. By the way, the Concept Laser X Line 2000R employs twin 1000W fiber lasers to print layers twice as fast as single laser machines. That’s important for the large prints that could emerge from this huge machine.
Why Use A Large-Format 3D Printer?
What does Protolabs intend on doing with this huge machine? One might think that they plan on using it to print larger objects that would not fit on their smaller machines, thus saving quite a bit of post-processing time and simplifying the part for the client, and that’s true. But there’s another reason for the big machine. Protolabs explains:
“Dual 1000W lasers allow for fast manufacturing of large parts and serialized production volumes. This large-format machine also contains two build modules, which reduce downtime by allowing one build to take place while another is being set-up. Although the machine can be used with a variety of metal powders, Protolabs has chosen Inconel 718 to be the initial focus material to better serve its rapidly expanding number of aerospace customers.”
Protolabs appears to be also using the large build chamber to 3D print bigger batches of smaller parts to achieve higher part production throughput. This is an often forgotten capability of larger machines, but it can be quite powerful, as Photocentric realized in their emergency production of PPE. Protolabs can do the same thing with this machine.
In a way large-volume 3D printers such as the Concept Laser X Line 2000R are really two machines in one: a machine to build a very large part, and a machine to build many small parts.
Protolabs, as a manufacturing service, is all about throughput. Indeed, they already have a large number of machines able to push through plenty of production, but they are adding to their fleet not only with the Concept Laser X Line 2000R, but also announced the acquisition of no fewer than four additional Concept Laser M2 devices. They now boast of “more than 30 metal additive machines”.
It’s good to see another 3D print company doing well during the crisis.