Business Impact

One 3-D Printer for 21 Metals

A new additive manufacturing technique makes it possible to 3-D-print parts out of multiple metals.

A new technology for 3-D-printing metal parts could be a cheaper and more versatile alternative to common industrial metalworking techniques. It also opens the door to new kinds of parts with unique properties that arise from the precise combination of multiple metals. Possible applications include structural parts for things like car or airplane bodies, as well as components of engines, electrical devices, or other machines.

That’s according to AJ Perez, CEO of NVBOTS, the Boston-based startup that developed the new method. The company says the technology, which is capable of printing 21 different metals from aluminum, nickel, and tin to alloys like stainless steel and nickel titanium, is the only one that can use multiple metals during the same job.

A ring made of pure titanium is 15 millimeters in diameter and five millimeters tall.

Using additive manufacturing to inexpensively make a wide variety of reliable parts out of metal would be a boon for many industries, since it would eliminate the cost of building the tools needed to manufacture new and unique parts by conventional means. Big companies like GE and Pratt & Whitney already use established additive manufacturing techniques to make high-value metal parts such as engine components, but the machines and metal powders required are very expensive. Perez says his company’s technology, which employs electricity to melt metal wire, is not only cheaper and much faster but also more flexible and efficient than those techniques and, crucially, provides more control over the printing process.

Printing metals is technically challenging for many reasons, but perhaps the most important have to do with heat. Large amounts of heat are required to melt the materials, and the way metals conduct heat complicates the process of building structurally sound parts layer by layer. The established techniques for doing this entail using either a laser or an electron beam to melt and fuse thin layers of metal powder.

These stainless-steel parts were made with the new printing method. The large hexagonal ring is 65 millimeters wide.

Perez says the new method can be thought of as a high-precision form of welding. The precision comes from a proprietary method of controlling the amount of heat used to produce every single voxel, or 3-D pixel, of a printed part. That provides a level of control over the final quality of the part that is not possible with the powder-based techniques, he says.

Right now the technology, which is still in development, can only be used to make relatively small parts. But Perez says that for small, high-value stainless-steel and titanium parts, it is already a viable alternative to a common industrial metalworking technique called casting. Casting is used in a variety of industries, including auto manufacturing, aerospace, luxury goods, and oil and gas.

The longer-term promise is the ability to print parts with unique properties that “you wouldn’t be able to manufacture any other way,” says Perez. For example, parts could feature corrosion- or heat-resistant metal on the outside and a very strong but susceptible metal on the inside. Or they could be designed to manage heat in specific ways. Companies aiming to build lighter-weight cars or planes could use the technology to make new designs that mix heavy, strong metals with lightweight but not-so-strong ones. 

Later this year NVBOTS will launch a program through which industrial partners can participate in R&D aimed at refining the process and further developing the materials palette.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Business Impact

How technology advances are changing the economy and providing new opportunities in many industries.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.