A fascinating new 3D print startup has emerged from stealth mode: Freeform.
The Los Angeles-based company was founded by folks from SpaceX, who had been using metal AM equipment to produce rocket engine components. During their experience at the rocket company they learned a great deal about what works — and what doesn’t — about metal 3D printing using today’s technology.
Their new company, Freeform, is hoping to change the equation.
In a story on Bloomberg, they explain that one of the biggest issues in metal additive manufacturing systems is heat. While it’s possible to print faster by using more lasers and upping the energy of each, that simply makes the machines too hot and they have to cool down. It’s stated that some metal systems operate only about 60% of the time due to cooldown requirements.
Freeform seems to have found a way around that problem by using a unique conveyor belt system that carries plates of material around through the machine, where large numbers of lasers can work on the print job.
The other major problem with metal 3D printing today is the lack of reliability. It typically takes a squad of expensive engineers to navigate the print setup and quality control for each job, as thermal issues usually mess up the geometry or cause faults in the solid portions of the print.
Freeform hopes to eliminate that issue as well by using an array of complex sensors, vision systems, machine learning and more. Apparently the camera array on their system can capture 70,000 frames per second, which is used to perform real-time control on the lasers. This could dramatically reduce problems and ensure part quality.
There’s something else: scalability.
The Freeform machine design is apparently quite scalable, and while their first machine employs a stunning 18 lasers, that’s just the beginning. They have visions of expanding the approach to building-sized 3D printers that would essentially become additive factories, able to produce high quality metal parts on demand.
Evidently the current machine can 3D print up to five kilograms of metal powder per hour (120kg/day), but they expect to dramatically raise this amount in future implementations.
If this all sounds ambitious, it is. Creating a company that successfully manufacture building-sized metal 3D printers seems outrageous, and yet their initial efforts seem to prove the possibility of success.
However, this project will no doubt require an enormous amount of money to execute. According to Crunchbase, the company has currently raised US%45M. That’s a lot of money, but I suspect they’ll need a lot more to proceed.
Freeform is clearly a company to watch, and I’d like to learn more about their process.