Yet another company is promising a 3D printer that can print metal objects with greater speed. This time, it’s Toshiba.
The Japanese company, better known for laptops and tablets, says its printer can print metals such as stainless steel and iron 10 times faster than metal 3D printers currently on the market. It partnered with its machine tools unit, Toshiba Machine, to develop a prototype of this printer that could be available as early as 2017.
If Toshiba’s sales pitch for its first-ever 3D printer sounds similar to the other companies currently developing or selling metal 3D printers, it’s for good reason. The speed with which current 3D printers can pump out metal objects—along with the build materials available, the sizes of the machines, and their price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—is one of the prominent hurdles left to clear when it comes widespread adoption of 3D printing by manufacturers for more than just designing and testing prototypes of parts.
So let’s have a closer look at Toshiba’s machine, which the company said in a press release could fabricate metal parts at a speed of 110 cubic centimeters per hour. It’s a powder-bed 3D printer, meaning it lays down a powdered metal and then sinters the powder with a laser to form a solid metal part. Advertised build rates for other metal 3D printers that form objects in a similar fashion range from 5 cubic centimeters per hour to 70 cubic centimeters per hour. The innovation seems to be in how Toshiba’s printer sinters the powdered metal together: Instead of laying down a whole bed of powdered metal first, Toshiba’s printer lays down powder and sinters in tandem.
What Toshiba’s printer makes up for in speed might be lost in the sophistication of materials. The powdered metals available for 3D-printing applications need further development, and there’s at least one new entrant to the 3D-printing world, Xjet, that’s promising a metal 3D-printing process that achieves even greater speeds by using liquid metal.
Still, even marginal improvements in speed might give the right company a toehold in the growing market for metal 3D printers. While the numbers of printer sales are paltry—just 348 metal 3D printers were sold in 2013, according to Wohlers Report 2014—metals, and the concomitant printers, are the fastest growing sector of a 3D-printing field expected to be worth more than $17 billion by 2020.
If you happen to be in Tokyo this week: Toshiba is showing off its new metal 3D printer now through Dec. 4 at Monozukuri Matching Japan 2015.
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