Researchers at MIT have developed a rapid 3D-printing technique that uses liquid metal to allow for extremely fast prints. The process can manufacture large aluminum components in minutes, whereas many pre-existing techniques would take hours to finish the same build. The technology has already been used to create table legs, chair frames and related furniture parts.
It’s called liquid metal printing (LMP) and involves directing molten aluminum along a predefined path into a bed of tiny glass beads. These beads quickly harden into a 3D structure. Researchers say the new process is at least ten times faster than comparable metal manufacturing techniques.
However, there is one major caveat. This process sacrifices resolution for speed and scale. This is why the researchers have used it to create low-resolution items like chair legs and not, say, intricate parts with complex geometries. MIT researchers say this trade-off still makes the technology useful for creating “components of larger structures” that don’t require extremely fine details. This includes furniture parts, as mentioned above, but also components for construction and industrial design.
Despite the resolution downgrade, parts made using LMP are still durable and can withstand post-print machining, like drilling and boring. The folks behind this technology say the builds are much more durable than those built with wire arc additive manufacturing, which is a pre-existing metal printing method. This is because LMP keeps the material molten throughout the entire process, lessening the chances of cracking and warping.
The researchers recommend combining LMP with other techniques for jobs that require both speed and a high resolution. “Most of our built world — the things around us like tables, chairs, and buildings — doesn’t need extremely high resolution”, said Skylar Tibbits, a senior author of a paper that introduced the project.
It’s also worth noting that this printing method doesn’t require aluminum. It can work with other metals. The researchers chose aluminum due to its popularity in construction and the fact that it’s easily recycled.
The folks behind this tech hope to keep iterating on the concept to improve heating consistency, to prevent sticking, and allow for greater control over the molten metal. The team’s been having issues with larger nozzle diameters leading to irregular prints, which is something that needs to be worked out. Tibbits said the method could eventually become a “game-changer in metal manufacturing.”
Despite slightly falling out of favor in the commercial space, 3D printing has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years. Researchers have developed a tiny 3D printer that actually gets inserted into the body to repair and clean damaged tissue. Scientists also recently printed a working piece of the human heart.