Metal jetting technology makes European debut

An additive manufacturing system that produces parts by jetting metal ink has made its European debut at the Formnext show in Germany.

Developed by Israeli firm Xjet, the system is based on the company’s so-called NanoParticle Jetting technology, which uses ink jetting to produce complex metal parts from a suspension of nanoscale particles.

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The firm claims that the system represents a fundamental breakthrough in additive manufacturing and produced higher quality, more detailed parts than is possible with existing metal additive techniques – most of which build parts from powdered metal.

The technology – which was demonstrated to the US market at the Rapid show earlier this year – uses solid metal nanoparticles suspended in liquid “ink” in sealed cartridges.

During the printing process, ultra-fine layers of droplets of this ink – which also contains support structure nanoparticles – are deposited onto the build-tray, where extremely high temperatures cause the liquid ‘jacket’ around the metal nanoparticles to evaporate. After this a sintering process is carried out to fuse the metal particles together.

Critically, whilst many other techniques rely on uniform metallic particles, the particles used in the jet process are stochastic – i.e. of random shapes and sizes. According to the firm, this produces properly dense parts with no porous attributes, resulting in superior quality metal.

Xjet also claims that the size of the particles and the ultra-thin layers that the process creates allows a level of detail that gives printed components virtually the same metallurgy as traditionally made metal parts. “XJet’s…..breakthrough technology produces complex geometries with intricate details, and with perfect metallurgy. This is unprecedented,” said Yair Shamir, XJET’s Chairman.

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What’s more, because the raw material is loaded into the machine in a sealed cartridge the system is claimed to be far safer and more user friendly than other systems, which require users to handle metal powders. .

XJet Ltd. was founded in 2005 by inkjet printing industry veteran Hanan Gothait. He was one of the co-founders of Objet, which merged with 3D printing giant Stratasys in 2012.

The firm employs 55 multidisciplinary R&D specialists and has filed more than 55 registered and pending patents. Earlier this year it announced that it had raised $25 million in investment through a funding round led by Chinese private equity fund CEL and engineering software giant Autodesk.

However, it isn’t the only organisation working on metal jetting technology.

US startup Vader systems recently unveiled it’s so-called “magnetojet technology – an innovative approach which uses an electromagnetic jetting system to produce 3D dimensional components from molten aluminium.

Meanwhile, here in the UK – as previously reported in The Engineer – the University of Nottingham’s EPSRC Centre for additive manufacturing has been working with Dutch ink-jetting specialist Oce on the MetalJet machine – a system that will be able to directly jet 3D metallics from print heads that operate at temperatures of upto to 1800°C.

Commenting on the Xjet technology, Prof Richard Hague, who heads up the Nottingham group described it as an interesting and promising approach, but suggested that the requirement for a post-processing sintering stage might lead to component shrinkage and distortion issues. “It will be interesting to see how they’re going to manage these issues,” he said. “People who use metal are primarily interested in the microstructure and I would say that the metallurgy of the finished parts is yet unknown.”