Liquid Metal 3D Printing Holds Promise As Revolutionary Manufacturing Method

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When an engineering student couldn’t find the 3D parts he needed for a project, he turned to making them himself, building the foundations of a metal printer that could revolutionize the manufacturing process.

Metal printing isn’t actually new but machines in existence use powdered metal that is melted with an electron or laser beam. Vader Systems’ 3D printer uses liquid metal instead.

The Inspiration

Zack Vader first got the idea for a liquid metal 3D printer when he was a 19-year-old student at the University at Buffalo. He was trying to build a microturbine generator but his plans of hiring a company to 3D-print the parts he needed fell through. This prompted him to make his own metal printer, exposing melted metal in a confined chamber with an opening facing a pulsed magnetic field, which creates pressure to eject metal liquid droplets to be formed into whatever size or shape needed.

Now 24 years old, Zack continued working on his invention at home with his parents but ran into some technical problems. This is where he sought help from his former university and got the assistance he needed from three faculty advisors. Vader Systems also became a part of the START-UP NY entrepreneurial program and received financial support from UB’s National Grid, Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology, and Center for Industrial Effectiveness grants. The company also got three mechanical engineering graduates from UB as interns.

3D Printing With Steel

The Vader Systems’ liquid metal 3D printer works by melting an aluminum strand at 1,382 degrees Fahrenheit. Once liquefied, the metal passes through a ceramic tube and comes out of a submillimeter orifice, dropping onto a heated platform that moves to create 3D shapes by layering metal deposits.

According to Scott, Zack’s father, there are plans to modify the liquid metal 3D printer to add a nozzle that will speed up the printing process. Eventually, Vader Systems will be melting and printing steel at 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the moment, Vader Systems is operating out of a factory to build its liquid metal 3D printers. As they evolve their business, the Vaders are planning on getting an assembly line manufacturing facility, giving them enough room to expand.

Zack may have initially needed a 3D metal printer to build a microturbine generator but he sees his new work being used on a number of applications. In fact, an automotive parts manufacturer has already expressed interest in acquiring a minimum of 50 of the liquid metal 3D printers. If fitted with multiple nozzles, a printer is estimated to cost over $1 million.

The Future Of Liquid Metal 3D Printing

According to one of Vader Systems’ advisors, Chi Zhou, he can see the liquid metal 3D printer complementing traditional metal printing today but it has the potential to dominate the market in about 10 years as it can print cheaper, better and faster.

“If they want to add functionality, we can. We have the source code,” he said.

Additionally, more complex systems will not be more expensive, making the liquid metal 3D printer an attractive choice for companies with various requirements.

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