Q&A: Ultimaker on bringing reliable metal 3D printing to the desktop

Last week, desktop 3D printing company ultimate maker launched a new product that aims to turn the long sought-after notion of 3D printing successful metal parts on the desktop printer a reality. The Metal Expansion Kit, which includes a new a dedicated set of print cores, Ultimaker certified materials in collaboration with BASF Forward AM, e-learning modules, and all accessories and digital assets to access essential post-processing networks, has been developed in collaboration with industry partners to make metal 3D printing more accessible and increase the success rate for desktop users. at TCT 3SixtyTCT Head of Content Laura Griffiths sat down with Ultimaker Product Manager Andrea Gasperini, and CTO Miguel Calvo to discuss how the company hopes to take metal printing on the desktop to the next level with its Ultimaker S5 and do it right first time.

LG: We’ve seen metals come to desktop FFF systems with BASF materials already so, how does what you’re presenting at TCT 3Sixty today take this to the next level?

MC: The open platform that we have makes it such that when new technologies are ready, you can bring them to the platform. We’ve worked with BASF for a long time to bring parts that were completely impossible two or three years ago. When you think about desktop, FFF, you’re thinking polymeric parts, maybe carbon-filled for strength, but this really opens up a higher level of functional components, prototyping, etc. And it all comes down to that relationship with BASF, our open system and really making it work well. It’s taken us time, we’ve consciously made sure that the product is right so that when we give this pack to our users, they have everything they need to go from their model to their finished part.

AG: This product finds its origin during the development projects that we were carrying jointly with BASF and customers. There was a lot of interest, some successes but also a lot of constraints and we were able to focus on those pains and really streamline this workflow now. Now everything is all aligned and that’s given us the motivation to continue. The interest is super strong and growing.

The level of technology has increased dramatically in the last year. So that’s really, for me, what makes it very interesting. […] We’re going to launch but the fun part for me starts again because now we’re going to go back to existing and perspective users with improvements and answers to those bottlenecks we were facing at the beginning.

LG: With that ecosystem already in place, what does the learning curve look like for someone who’s maybe not thought about using metals before but already quite familiar with the process in polymers?

MC: Going to a metallic part that’s debound and sintered can be quite daunting because there’s this whole post-processing step that’s out of your control. But what we’ve aimed to do is give that literature to the user and actually take a lot of the thinking out. They don’t need to think too much about what it is they’re doing because the guides that Andrea, working with BASF, has put together really just take them step by step through the process. So you don’t have to be metallurgist to print metal parts. We do great explanations: What is debinding What is sintering? What are the processes? What are the things you have to consider? It’s all about helping them set up the part in the first place so that you know the part you get at the end is exactly what you want.

LG: Can you talk more about the network that users will pass parts onto for those next steps in the process?

AG: Users can have access to four debinding and sintering sites: one in China; one in the UK, CMG Technologies which is affiliated with BASF and 3DGBIRE† one in Germany; and one on the East Coast in the US These centers can guarantee 10 business days or less lead time for your part to be post-processed and shipped back to customers’ facilities in the region.

Users might still be skeptical in using the D&S network for many reasons, one is its limited regional coverage now. However, the more users begin to be successful, the higher are the volumes produced which in turn will both lead to an acceleration in the frequency D&S runs are operated and network capillarity […] I think this product is kickstarting this process that was missing before because people were maybe trying the material, finding the material didn’t work, and were stopping there. So that’s what we’re trying to do for the benefit of both the customer and the whole infrastructure developing around metal FFF.

MC: If I have five parts, for example, that I want to debind and sinter, finding a house that actually says ‘yeah, you can stick that in my furnace,’ is difficult. So that service-level agreement we have with our partners is important, they’ll do one run for 3D printed parts every two weeks however full or not the furnace is. But as more and more people print, and there’s more and more volume, more debind and sinter houses or MIM houses are going to say, ‘Hey, this is a revenue stream we never had before because we currently only debind and sinter our own parts . Now we can debind and sinter parts that come from outside sources.’ As this technology grows or as the as the adoption grows, you’ll actually see lead times drop. And I would suggest if you wanted to make five of these today, and you wanted to outsource that to a machining company, you probably wouldn’t get that turnaround within two weeks anyway. So we’re probably about there with outsourcing to a CNC machining shop, but that will even get better as time goes forward.

LG: The ability to 3D print with metals on the desktop seemed like dream for a long time but you’ve been co-developing these support materials with BASF for a while. Can you give us a sense of the demand you’re seeing for 3D printing with metals on the desktop today and the reaction so far?

AG: Our priority now is trying to educate existing and perspective user of the technology that you cannot print everything: we need to explain that each process has its own limitations, that there is not always a fit for many metal parts out there to be produced additively by FFF. If we are looking at the whole range of metal parts that can be considered for production with additive processes, we see the right fit for Metal FFF when it concerns small series, from 1 to 20 units / year, of not off-the-shelf auxiliary components, customized tools, or functional prototypes. Low volumes or these class of applications results indeed to be 3 to 10 times more expensive if produced by traditional milling machines or more performant metal 3D processes. Metal FF is not to be considered an high throughput process for peak demands, indeed we see customers taking most advantage of considerable costs savings from 50% up to 90% with just few but well selected applications produced in low volumes when needed during the year.

MC: If you already own an Ultimaker S line printer, you don’t need to do anything apart from buy the pack. […] Metal is big, people are interested and I think the reason is that it is being democratised. BASF launched the material, those open platforms can take it and print it but people are having a bad experience. They’re printing parts that are failing in debind and sinter, or they’re not even getting a good print off the machine. […] We have got to bringing this pack out now because we’re confident that even a new user or one that’s tried it before, we’ve given them enough information, a workflow that works so that they can be successful. […] It’s not as simple as printing a polymer part but even a polymer part with support, people struggle to get the settings right. We’ll give them that one stop shop, hopefully show them how easy it can be and that’s when it will start to gain traction. There’s lots of other products coming out, we’ve consciously waited till we’ve got to the point where success is more likely than failure.

LG: BASF launched its metal filaments in 2019. We’ve seen a number of other desktop platforms adopt so far but you say users haven’t really had the success they perhaps wanted with it. What’s the key differentiator here?

MC: It’s across the patch. We have the in-house ability to develop the software. Cura 5.0 launched, and we’ve been developing the engine, which has brand new tool pathing but there are all of these very specific features required to be able to print good metal parts with lower distortion than anyone else can achieve today. That’s the software side. Hardware, yes, the ceramic material hit the market, but put that through a standard core, you will see very high wear. Working with BASF, we’ve got that hardware, it’s now compatible with the ceramic materials. So, you put the material, the printer hardware, and the software together, and then all the learning and all the packs the team have been working on between BASF and Ultimaker, you have everything you need to be able to get it right.

LG: You spoke about some of the types of parts and applications that you envision users printing in metal. Can you talk about any customers that you’ve worked with already?

MC: I think Liebherr are a really great example, they’re a huge company and they use lots of additive manufacturing technologies. They have full range from powder bed all the way down to FFF but they really see a sweet spot with their parts, similar size to the one I have in my hand here [Note: MC holds a small metal part no bigger than the palm of his hand]† What they showed was for that size of part, the development that they went through, it really was the sweet spot and it made much more sense than all the other great capital investment equipment they’ve got around the business, which are developed for bigger , different parts, these brackets that they were using to fix a fan cover at the front of these very large industrial diesel engines, it just made a lot of sense to use an FFF printer. The time it took to get from design to finished component to testing to iterating and printing the next one, it really fitted and when you’ve got a full toolset that they’ve got to choose, the fact that they focus on FFF for that part shows you that it has a real sweet spot.

LG: And I imagine it’s also opening up the possibilities for smaller companies who have historically always thought of metal additive as being something that’s out of the realms of possibility.

MC: There’s space for that in the market. You walk around this hall [at TCT 3Sixty] today and you’ll see the very top end solutions where you’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment. But when you consider you can get parts of this quality from a sub 10k machine, it’s astonishing. Some companies might find it’s just a toe in the water, they may progress from there. It’s so approachable, there’s no huge capex. If you own an Ultimaker machine today, buy the expansion kit, you’re printing metal tomorrow, it’s as simple as that.

AG: to show that printing metal parts is not a stretch anymore on an Ultimaker system. Of course, printing metal parts requires some additional attentions than other materials with but it is absolutely in the capabilities of the hardware and is not something anymore exclusive for tech savvy experts.

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