Markforged's '3D print farms' could be future of large-scale digital metal manufacturing

Apr 27, 2017 | By Benedict

Massachusetts-based 3D printing company Markforged is using its new Atomic Diffusion Additive Manufacturing (ADAM) process and Metal X 3D printers to advance its futuristic “3D print farm” vision of large-scale metal manufacturing.

When Markforged unveiled its new Metal X 3D printer at CES earlier this year, we were struck by one thing in particular. Unusually for a Markforged product, it wasn’t the 3D printer itself, but the way that the company said it should be used.

Massachusetts-based Markforged, which cemented its place in additive manufacturing history when it released the world’s first carbon fiber 3D printer, the Mark One, said it had designed the Metal X to work not just as a standalone machine, but as part of a large-scale “3D print farm” consisting of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of 3D printers.

It is on these multi-printer 3D print farms that Markforged believes future large-scale metal 3D printing will take place. Given the focus from some quarters on making 3D printers bigger, Markforged’s approach stands out as a different option: rather than increase the size (or speed) of an individual 3D printer to increase its manufacturing capacity, you could instead use several 3D printers working in sync, controlled by a central system capable of assigning tasks for maximum efficiency.

It’s a daringly simple concept, one that is also followed by companies like Brooklyn-based Voodoo Manufacturing, but it’s also an ambitious one. Markforged is essentially telling manufacturers that they won’t just need a handful of 3D printers in the future—they’ll need thousands.

The Markforged Metal X 3D printer can inspect parts as they are being printed

Markforged recently released some extra information concerning its proposed 3D print farms, which the company says “will shorten development time, closing the gap between prototyping and production.”

According to Markforged, there are three key focus areas for making the concept a success.

The first of these involves using the company’s new ADAM 3D printing technology to reduce printing costs. The second involves deploying smart sensors to build a platform for the print farm, and the third involves using its enterprise-grade fleet management software, which can “optimize workflows, provide predictive analytics,” and “connect, monitor, and report results across a fleet of connected printers.”

ADAM, the 3D printing process used by the new Markforged Metal X 3D printers and 3D print farms, builds on the company’s carbon fiber printing processes, but replaces carbon fiber with 60% metal powder. The company says this new process improves “machine reliability, surface finish, final-part dimensional accuracy, and repeatability.”

“ADAM is an end-to-end process that starts with metal powder, captures it in a plastic binder (which makes it safe to handle), and then forms it into the part shape one layer at a time,” explains Markforged CEO Greg Mark. “After printing you sinter the part in a furnace, burning off the binder and solidifying the powder into the final fully-dense metal part.”

An important part of the 3D print farm project is reducing the overall cost of 3D printing for businesses—something that Markforged will absolutely need to demonstrate considering the scale of setting up one of these print farms. At present, Markforged’s desktop printers cost $3,499, but the company is working on a two-year target to make each printer in its print farms costs less than $1,000.

Part printed using Markforged’s ADAM 3D printing process

Of course, the idea behind the print farm is to have huge numbers of these printers running simultaneously. Assuming that the resulting high turnover of parts could generate suitable revenue, this would then hypothetically justify the investment in a sintering furnace, required to burn off the plastic binder used in the ADAM 3D printing process. A “full stack production furnace,” which can handle the output of 500-1,000 3D printers in a print farm, costs around $800,000.

When making quick prototypes, users of this new Markforged 3D printing technology could also use microwave sintering to produce pure metal parts “within hours.” The company says it has been microwaving ADAM parts with a 90-minute cycle time.

Fortunately for Markforged customers, the 3D printing company has developed its ADAM 3D printing process to work with a variety of 3D printable materials. “ADAM leverages well known MIM materials that are used in demanding, end-use applications,” Mark says. “Best of all, the process supports hundreds of metals. 17-4 Stainless Steel is the first material we will ship, but many others are in beta testing including Tool Steels, Titanium, Aluminum, and Inconel.”

Markforged’s cloud-based fleet management solution, Eiger, is used to control the many 3D printers in a print farm.

“In the next 2 years Markforged will achieve the technological leap to true digital metal manufacturing,” Mark says. “It’s time for mechanical engineering to enter the digital age.”

Posted in 3D Printer

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