3D printing doesn’t respect international borders, although there are some countries that are leading the charge into this brave new world.
While the US certainly has a presence here, Americans are taking a back seat to other nations, notably Australia. However, even a smaller country like Ireland might be set to outpace what the US is doing with the announcement that the country will create a brand new 3D printing program in Waterford. It will cost 1.5 million euros, and will specialize in a particular type of 3D printing – metal.
Printing Metal vs. Plastics
Most 3D printers are able to handle plastic filaments. There are some that can use resin and other materials, but fewer that use materials like metal.
That’s because printing with metal requires very high heat levels and specialized designs/materials that are simply too costly for consumer production.
So, while there are printers capable of handling metal, they’re not widely available on the market outside of industrial and commercial circles. There are quite a few advantages to be had with this plastic alternative, though.
Metal is obviously stronger and more durable than plastic, even the newer eco-friendly plastics that have come to dominate the industry. Metal can be ground and shaped, used to create components that offer decades of use, rather than months or a handful of years, and that can be used in a far broader range of applications (think automotive, space exploration, engineering and more).
The New Initiative
The new program in Waterford will be led by the South East Applied Materials Research Centre at WIT. The team will work with Boston Scientific (so the US does have at least some role to play here).
Schivo, an Irish company, will also be on board, as will Lisnabrin Engineering. The point of the new program is to research technologies to foster a technique called metal laser sintering, in order to help foster the growth of 3D printing for components that are simply too complex for conventional production methods, but require greater strength and durability than what is possible with conventional plastics.
Metal laser sintering offers quite a few advantages to businesses (both in Ireland and, eventually, beyond her borders). One of these is a reduction in the number of steps required in the manufacturing process, saving companies both time and money.
Another advantage is the reduction in materials used and wasted, an important benefit in an age when increasing attention is being paid to sustainability and environmental consciousness. Finally, it also helps improve prototyping speed, taking it from a lengthy, drawn out process to something akin to what’s possible with today’s high-speed commercial plastics 3D printers.
The new program is an exciting development, and while it’s centered on developing technologies and techniques to offer Irish businesses advantages, those same developments will help spur further evolution and development in the wider industrial world. They’re also likely to filter down to other applications, perhaps one day reaching consumers in the form of new metal 3D printing machines.