Wire deposition technology promises low-cost 3D printing machines

A metal 3D printing technology costing just a fraction of the price of existing additive manufacturing machines could be launched next year.

London-based company IT IS 3D is working with researchers at Cranfield University to develop the low-cost metal 3D printing system, based on wire deposition technology.

Existing additive manufacturing machines cost between £200,000 and £1m. While still in licencing negotiations with the university, IT IS 3D hopes to launch the technology by the end of 2016, for prices starting at under £50,000.

That would make the technology accessible to far more companies around the world, according to Martin Stevens, CEO of IT IS 3D. “We hope to take this sophisticated technology and turn it into something that is affordable to a large range of companies, to provide them with a means of prototyping or creating low volume, special purpose parts, using metal 3D printing,” he said.

The wire deposition process, also known as wire and arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), uses a robot to deposit layers of molten metal from a wire through a welding head onto a surface. The technique, developed at Cranfield University, is being explored by the aerospace and defence industries as it is capable of producing large components much more rapidly than processes such as powder and laser deposition.

However, the technique typically involves the use of expensive robots such as those used in the automotive industry, and costly welding generators, said Stevens.

“We and Cranfield University plan to look at much lower cost, probably cartesian [linear] robots,” he said. “When used alongside lower cost welding systems – and we’re investigating those at the moment to see which can produce the best results – we believe we can get the cost down to a level that no other technology can reach at the moment.”

The company won a place to showcase its 3D metal printing technology at the Innovate 2015 show in London earlier this month.