We can 3-D print myriad plastic goods, fabric for apparel, burritos, candy, and perhaps in the not-so-distant future, human organs. Metal—the material that forms the skeleton of any city, building, or car—has been less accessible. Now, a collaboration between Dutch designer Joris Laarman and software company Autodesk has yielded something groundbreaking: an affordable technique for printing large metal structures, called MX3D-Metal.
Laarman has spent the past few years working on the edge of digital fabrication—a few years back he created chairs based off an algorithm that could ape the structure of human bones and tree growth. These days he’s focused on creating his furniture-as-art pieces in stronger materials, like metal.
"Because he’s an artist, he’s pushing the envelope further than an industry would," says Autodesk director Maurice Conti, who first grew interested in Laarman's work a few year's back when the designer was using a large scale resin printer. "An artist just has a creative vision and they kind of ignore what the tools are supposed to be able to do and they realize their creative vision."
Up until now, according to Conti, 3-D printing a metal structure requires a machine that costs around $1 million and could still only produce objects as big as a computer tablet. Manufacturing giants like GE and Boeing have these machines; smaller companies do not. "Let’s say you wanted to print a pair of high-heel shoes," Conti tells Co.Design, citing what seems to be a recurring common 3-D printed design. "They would cost $20,000 to $30,000. Then you would need a special machine to cut those off the build plate. They would need to be printed in a vacuum, that’s only available to a limited high-end market." (Also, in December, a team at Michigan Technical University hacked together a more affordable large scale 3-D metal printer, but also stated that it was a work in progress, and that "within a month, somebody will make one that's better than ours, I guarantee it.")
Here’s how MX3D-Metal works: A robotic arm—the same kind used in car manufacturing or at Amazon’s shipment centers—with a computer-controlled metal welding machine starts to deposit molten metal onto an existing metal surface. Once the initial bit of metal is fused with the surface, the extrusion tip of the arm starts to work like a hot glue gun, or even like a Makerbot, by emitting small amounts of molten material at a time. The arm is controlled by new software Autodesk created that can give the robot more fluid instructions for where the metal should go. Because of how quickly the metal hardens, the new object doesn’t need an additional support structure.
Realizing a newer, cheaper method didn’t require re-inventing the wheel. In fact, it’s because most of the equipment parts already exist that this technique is so affordable. Both Conti and Laarman say that the technique is deceptively simple. The biggest challenge now, according to Laarman, is collecting the data from months of testing to see how they can improve the software, and get even more precise creative control over the robotic arms. "It’s figuring out the right parameters until stuff actually works," Laarman says. "For instance, vertical, horizontal, or spiraling lines require different settings, such as pulse time, pause time, layer height, or tool orientation."
Laarman’s studio will be employing it first to create a sculptural bench (which will exhibit at New York’s Friedman Benda gallery this May). "Like it did with the spread of information, digital technology is now also starting to define an evolution in the way we design, manufacture, distribute, and even recycle physical products," Laarman tells Co.Design.