AM ResearchArchitectureHigh Speed 3D PrintingMetal Additive Manufacturing

MIT researchers develop rapid liquid metal 3D printing

The LMP technique involves depositing molten aluminum along a predefined path into a bed of tiny glass beads

Stay up to date with everything that is happening in the wonderful world of AM via our LinkedIn community.

According to MIT, researchers have developed an additive manufacturing technique that can print rapidly with liquid metal – producing large-scale parts like table legs and chair frames in a matter of minutes. The liquid metal printing (LMP) technique involves depositing molten aluminum along a predefined path into a bed of tiny glass beads, with the aluminum quickly hardening into a 3D structure. The researchers say LMP is at least 10x faster than a comparable metal AM process, and the procedure to heat and melt the metal is more efficient than some other methods.

The technique does sacrifice resolution for speed and scale – while it can print components that are larger than those typically made with slower additive techniques, and at a lower cost, it cannot achieve high resolutions. For instance, parts produced with LMP would be suitable for some applications in architecture, construction, and industrial design, where components of larger structures often don’t require extremely fine details. It could also be utilized effectively for rapid prototyping with recycled or scrap metal.

In a recent study, the MIT researchers demonstrated the procedure by printing aluminum frames and parts for tables and chairs which were strong enough to withstand postprint machining. They showed how components made with LMP could be combined with high-resolution processes and additional materials to create functional furniture.

“This is a completely different direction in how we think about metal manufacturing that has some huge advantages. It has downsides, too. But most of our built world – the things around us like tables, chairs, and buildings – doesn’t need extremely high resolution. Speed and scale, and also repeatability and energy consumption, are all important metrics,” said Skylar Tibbits, associate professor in the Department of Architecture and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, who is senior author of a paper introducing LMP.

MIT researchers develop rapid liquid metal 3D printing (LMP) by depositing molten aluminum into a bed of tiny glass beads.
The liquid metal printing process involves depositing molten aluminum along a predefined path into a bed of tiny, glass beads.
Credits: Credit: MIT Self-Assembly Lab.

Tibbits is joined on the paper by lead author Zain Karsan SM ’23, who is now a PhD student at ETH Zurich; as well as Kimball Kaiser SM ’22 and Jared Laucks, a research scientist and lab co-director. The research was presented at the Association for Computer-Aided Design in Architecture Conference and recently published in the association’s proceedings.

High-speed

Wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), one method for printing with metals that is common in construction and architecture, is also able to produce large, low-resolution structures. However, these can be susceptible to cracking and warping because some portions must be remelted during the printing process.

LMP, on the other hand, keeps the material molten throughout the process, avoiding some of the structural issues caused by remelting. Drawing on the group’s previous work on rapid liquid printing with rubber, the researchers built a machine that melts aluminum, holds the molten metal, and deposits it through a nozzle at high speeds. Large-scale parts can be printed in just a few seconds, and then the molten aluminum cools in several minutes.

“Our process rate is really high, but it is also very difficult to control. It is more or less like opening a faucet. You have a big volume of material to melt, which takes some time, but once you get that to melt, it is just like opening a tap. That enables us to print these geometries very quickly,” said Karsan.

MIT researchers develop rapid liquid metal 3D printing (LMP) by depositing molten aluminum into a bed of tiny glass beads.
The LMP process can enable the printing of complex geometries.
Credits: Credit: MIT Self-Assembly Lab.

The team chose aluminum because it is commonly used in construction and can be recycled cheaply and efficiently. Bread loaf-sized pieces of aluminum are deposited into an electric furnace, “which is basically like a scaled-up toaster,” said Karsan. Metal coils inside the furnace heat the metal to 700° Celsius, slightly above aluminum’s 660° melting point.

The aluminum is held at a high temperature in a graphite crucible, and then molten material is gravity-fed through a ceramic nozzle into a print bed along a preset path. They found that the larger the amount of aluminum they could melt, the faster the printer could go.

“Molten aluminum will destroy just about everything in its path. We started with stainless steel nozzles and then moved to titanium before we ended up with ceramic. But even ceramic nozzles can clog because the heating is not always entirely uniform in the nozzle tip,” said Karsan.

By injecting the molten material directly into a granular substance, the researchers don’t need to print supports to hold the aluminum structure as it takes shape.

MIT researchers develop rapid liquid metal 3D printing (LMP) by depositing molten aluminum into a bed of tiny glass beads.
The researchers can adjust the feed rate of the liquid metal printing process so more or less material is deposited as the nozzle moves, changing the shape of the printed object.
Credits: Credit: MIT Self-Assembly Lab.

The process

The researchers experimented with several materials to fill the print bed, including graphite powders and salt, before selecting 100-micron glass beads. The tiny glass beads, which can withstand the extremely high temperature of molten aluminum, act as a neutral suspension so the metal can cool quickly. “The glass beads are so fine that they feel like silk in your hand. The powder is so small that it doesn’t really change the surface characteristics of the printed object,” said Tibbits.

The amount of molten material held in the crucible, the depth of the print bed, and the size and shape of the nozzle have the biggest impacts on the geometry of the final object. For instance, parts of the object with larger diameters are printed first, since the amount of aluminum the nozzle dispenses tapers off as the crucible empties. Changing the depth of the nozzle alters the thickness of the metal structure.

To aid in the LMP process, the researchers developed a numerical model to estimate the amount of material that will be deposited into the print bed at a given time. According to Tibbtes, because the nozzle pushes into the glass bead powder, the researchers can’t watch the molten aluminum as it is deposited, so they needed a way to simulate what should be going on at certain points in the printing process.

The researchers used LMP to rapidly produce aluminum frames with variable thicknesses, which were durable enough to withstand machining processes like milling and boring. They demonstrated a combination of LMP and these post-processing techniques to make chairs and a table composed of lower-resolution, rapidly printed aluminum parts and other components, like wood pieces.

Moving forward, the MIT team wants to keep iterating on the machine so they can enable consistent heating in the nozzle to prevent material from sticking, and also achieve better control over the flow of molten material. Larger larger nozzle diameters can lead to irregular prints, so there are still technical challenges to overcome.

“If we could make this machine something that people could actually use to melt down recycled aluminum and print parts, that would be a game-changer in metal manufacturing. Right now, it is not reliable enough to do that, but that’s the goal,” said Tibbits.

“At Emeco, we come from the world of very analog manufacturing, so seeing the liquid metal printing creating nuanced geometries with the potential for fully structural parts was really compelling,” said Jaye Buchbinder, who leads business development for the furniture company Emeco and was not involved with this work. “The liquid metal printing really walks the line in terms of ability to produce metal parts in custom geometries while maintaining quick turnaround that you don’t normally get in other printing or forming technologies. There is definitely potential for the technology to revolutionize the way metal printing and metal forming are currently handled.”

Research
Composites AM 2024

746 composites AM companies individually surveyed and studied. Core composites AM market generated over $785 million in 2023. Market expected to grow to $7.8 billion by 2033 at 25.8% CAGR. This new...

Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
Close Popup
Privacy Settings saved!
Privacy Settings

When you visit any web site, it may store or retrieve information on your browser, mostly in the form of cookies. Control your personal Cookie Services here.

These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

Technical Cookies
In order to use this website we use the following technically required cookies
  • PHPSESSID
  • wordpress_test_cookie
  • wordpress_logged_in_
  • wordpress_sec

Decline all Services
Save
Accept all Services

Newsletter

Join our 12,000+ Professional community and get weekly AM industry insights straight to your inbox. Our editor-curated newsletter equips executives, engineers, and end-users with crucial updates, helping you stay ahead.