Xerox Additive Solutions announced an ElemX metal 3D printer was installed on an active US Navy ship.
The ElemX is a different kind of metal 3D printer. Most metal 3D printers are of the PBF variety, where an energy beam (usually lasers) selectively sinters metal on a flat bed of fine metal powder. This is done layer by layer until the object is completed.
The ElemX uses Xerox’s Liquid Metal technology, which is a different form metal 3D printing. Instead of fine metal powder, ElemX uses standard aluminum wire as the input material.
The wire is fed into a ceramic nozzle, which is heated to the melting point of aluminum. Then, an electromagnetic coil around the nozzle is energized, which exerts a slight force on the molten aluminum in the nozzle. This pushes out a single droplet of molten aluminum, which falls to the print surface. When running, ElemX deposits up to 1000 droplets per hour.
The result is a metal 3D print in aluminum that as reasonable resolution, as the size of the droplets is quite small.
Now a liquid metal device has been installed on the USS Essex for trials. The idea is to enable the production of metal spare parts (and newly designed parts) shipboard in remote areas. This capability, if successful, could drastically simplify the logistics of handling spare parts for the US Navy.
The Xerox ElemX is particularly well-suited for this application, as it does not require extensive environmental considerations as does any system involving fine metal powder. Fine metal powder is often toxic and sometimes explosive, and can easily become airborne. As a result, PBF systems must always use build chambers evacuated of oxygen, and the powder must always be sealed against the atmosphere. This greatly complicates the operation of equipment.
Meanwhile, the Xerox system uses only solid aluminum wire, which does not require such precautions. It means that the ElemX can be quickly and easily installed in almost any location, and operators don’t require many of the precautions used in PBF metal 3D printing.
“The ElemX leverages Xerox’s liquid metal AM technology that uses standard aluminum wire. Unlike other metal 3D printing technologies, there are no hazardous metal powders with ElemX and no need for special facility modifications or personal protective equipment to operate the machine. The printer also requires minimal post-processing and therefore provides a faster time-to-part. This ability to produce reliable replacement parts on-demand reduces the dependency on complex global supply chains for deployed forces.”
I’m very interested to see how this trial proceeds, because there might be one constraint that could affect the success of the mission. From what I understand, the liquid droplets fall via gravity to the target build. This might require the ship, or at least the printer itself, to be motionless. Imagine if the ship tipped to starboard slightly — this could alter the trajectory of the droplet stream, messing up the print.
It’s not clear from the images provided that the ElemX will be motion-isolated, but perhaps that might be an outcome of the trial.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating experiment that, if successful, could revolutionize military logistics.