3D Printing for Preppers: The Digital Foundry’s Metallic 3D Printing Filament –

3D Printing for Preppers: The Virtual Foundry's Metal 3D Printing Filament -

Anticipating the expansion of bonded metal printing by several years, Bradley Woods came up with the idea of ​​metal 3D printing of filaments in 2014 when he received his first 3D printer kit. After 3D printing plastic parts, Woods realized that to really make an impact, desktop 3D printing must be able to attack metal. Since he had already developed sculpture techniques with powder metallurgy, he came up with the idea of ​​making 3D printing filaments from metal powders that are bound in a polymer matrix.

The virtual foundry grew out of a 2015 Kickstarter campaign that achieved 107% of its intended goal and allowed Woods to move from his basement to a facility with commercial manufacturing facilities. Within two years, the basic technology matured and the startup was ready for a president to steer the ship. It was then that President Tricia Suess joined the company. We spoke to Suess and Woods to find out more about the company.

“Brad started with copper and now we’ve expanded our standard inventory to 14 different materials,” said Suess. “We have four ceramics, nine metals, including titanium and aluminum. And then we have a carbon fiber filament, which is our special binder mixture with carbon fiber. We also offer custom filaments. We do everything in 1.75mm and 2.85mm and also in pellet form. Brad works continuously to improve the manufacturing process and the usability of the filaments. Over the years they have become stronger and easier to work with. We have also put ever higher loads, which makes sintering easier and ultimately leads to a denser product with relatively little shrinkage. “

The company’s materials are two years ahead of Markforged and Desktop Metal’s bonded metal printing technologies. The latter companies are introducing their own forms of metal 3D printing in 2017. Both Markforged’s Metal X and Desktop Metal’s Studio Machine are closed, dedicated systems that offer the benefits of a plug-and-play experience, but are not flexible enough to accommodate any 3D printer for making to use fused filaments. Additionally, no chemical solutions are required to debond parts printed with The Virtual Foundry filament, so only one oven is required. All of this makes The Virtual Foundry more suitable for educational environments.

Parts 3D printed with Steel Filamet from The Virtual Foundry. Fired from Sapphire3D. Image courtesy of Sapphire3D.

It’s worth noting that there is a tradeoff between part density and shrinkage in both bonded metal printing and metal injection molding technologies. In the case of copper, the highest density attainable would be around 97 density with 15 percent shrinkage, but the shrinkage can be kept below 7 percent with 10 to 12 percent porosity.

In some cases this porosity can be an advantage when parts are designed as filters, for example, or when the part thickness is not critical. Despite this problem with bonded metal printing and injection molding of metal, useful parts can be made. One example that Woods supplied was that of a device for a machining process that gets particularly hot when the object to be machined comes into contact with the mill. For this reason, the virtual foundry’s carbon fiber material was used for the base, while copper was used for the area that comes in contact with the part. Due to a unique internal geometry, water can be circulated through the 3D printed component to keep the part cool.

A collimator for shield radiation in 3D printed with tungsten filamet from The Virtual Foundry. Image courtesy of The Virtual Foundry.

The wide range of materials that the company offers opens up some unique applications. For example, the virtual foundry’s tungsten, which weighs a little less than eight grams per CC, can be used as a non-toxic alternative to lead for radiation shielding and other radiological parts.

Regarding the emergency, Woods says the company has seen interest from the U.S. military:

“They drop those 3D printing pods that are built into shipping containers in a place where they need parts. Currently they are doing this with plastic and are experimenting with our product to expand metal parts with the same concept. They do this on battleships too, where they have several problems. You cannot 3D print with powder bed fusion. Due to the movement of the ship, most of the metal is 3D printed. However, this does not matter when using our material with metal in a binder. The same goes for low gravity operation. Powder bed fusion requires gravity. So we’re doing experiments at this end of the spectrum, also with a group that wants to print structures on the moon using the filamet process. “

Many of the projects that use The Virtual Foundry’s materials are under lock and key. This includes some research into the use of copper for COVID-19 shipments, taking advantage of the antimicrobial properties of this material. Aside from antimicrobial parts, it’s not hard to imagine some emergency situations where 3D printing copper would be of great benefit.

A couple of examples popped up to me right away when I started checking the copper filamet. One of these was copper induction coils, an increasingly popular application of copper 3D printing for industry. 3D printing could be used to replace copper coils for metalworking tools. A more quotidian use, however, would be to 3D print a copper hearth coil.

A metal air supply disc developed by Madhukar KC in Nepal with 3D printed prototypes and 3D printed by Field Ready. The air supply disc is used to provide cleaner and more efficient wood / fuel cooking for people in Nepal without a fan or stove. Image courtesy of Field Ready.

In Nepal, the non-profit Field Ready worked with a local parishioner to replicate a hob design. However, with copper material it might be possible to 3D print a hob yourself. As I mentioned in previous articles in this series, I am inexperienced with CAD. However, I was able to find a 2D spiral shape online and then extrude it in 3D using an online tool. Through 3D printing and sintering it would be possible to have an instant cooktop under which I could heat coals or wood.

My 3D printed SafeKey after sintering. Made from copper filamet.

And that’s just the beginning with metal filaments. Unfortunately, my SafeKey was too porous to use, but with a little extra work, some CAD expertise, and an oven, I was able to make objects out of titanium, nickel, aluminum, and more. According to Suess, the current material portfolio represents only the tip of the iceberg:

“We definitely want to expand our material bank to include more metals, but also other types of materials. We were contacted about possibly making one from hemp fiber. An ultra-light glass bubble filament that we manufacture with 3M is now on the development table. “

As described on the company’s website, “3M glass bubbles are high-strength, low-density hollow glass microspheres made from soda-lime borosilicate glass.” The virtual foundry is working with the chemical company to develop a method for 3D printing this unique material, one ultra-light filler already used in the aerospace, automotive, energy and construction industries.

“We mainly work on offshore oil drilling,” said Woods. “They use glass bubbles as insulation for the pipelines that run underwater because they have a low density. When you’re done, you can print something, burn the plastic off, and get a piece of glass that you can barely feel in your hand. It’s incredibly easy. “

The virtual foundry isn’t the only one developing metal filaments for 3D printing. The world’s largest chemical company, BASF, had developed a 3D printable stainless steel material. This leads to fierce competition and you can imagine a startup like The Virtual Foundry being taken over by the German giant. Regardless of what exactly happens, the startup is just beginning its journey. As the materials portfolio expands and the technology hits the market, the options for parts that can be 3D printed in emergencies only increase.

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