Markforged’s serial-producing printer – the PX100 Binder Jetting solution – enables manufacturers to build large quantities of high-quality metal parts. Manufacturers’ Monthly speaks with CEO of Digital Metal Christian Lönne during his recent visit to Australia about the capabilities of the printer and the future of the additive manufacturing landscape.
Initially developed by a small team in Sweden, Digital Metal began as a subsidiary of Höganäs AB as a relative unknown in 3D printing. When Christian Lönne joined the company in 2019, it had grown from its startup roots using completely new technology to having a presence in a number of industries.
Digital Metal’s 3D metal printing machines with proprietary, high-precision binder jetting technology, required further commercialisation to get into the hands of industry.
“When I arrived, we were ready to scale,” he said.
“I realised we had fantastic engineering capacity and we could see the inherent opportunities of serially producing additive manufacturing. We had mechanical engineers who refined the technology, but didn’t have the expertise in software.”
After many changes, Digital Metal’s biggest move came in July last year, when Makrforged – the creator of the integrated metal and carbon fibre additive manufacturing platform Digital Forge – entered into a definitive agreement with Höganäs AB to acquire the company.
This is what ‘the next step’ looked like for Digital Metal.
The acquisition fit both companies perfectly. Markforged is always looking to solve manufacturing challenges, and a huge problem is the months required for traditional production to move from design to manufacturing, with third party supplier risk and poor unit economics during ramp up and lower volume periods also concerns. Powder binder jetting is a highly scalable technology for production grade parts at the point of need with minimal setup required.
With Markforged’s experience and go-to-market scale, Digital Metal has been able to grow its technology on the mission to help more manufacturers produce the high-volume metal parts they need to drive highly productive and cost-efficient operations.
Crucially, Markforged’s Digital Forge platform is helping take Digital Metal’s mechanical solutions to the next level – the easy-to-use platform, best-in-class software capabilities and material expertise felt like a natural fit together.
The now Markforged binder jetting technology brings new capabilities in Australia to the Digital Forge platform – a production system capable of fabricating thousands of complex end-use metal parts.
“We slot into that ecosystem of combining hardware, software and materials,” Lönne explained.
“Coming from that more mechanical background where powder metallurgy is very intensive on the engineering side, we have widened our perspective to the bigger picture. I think this is where digital manufacturing is going and the vision which Markforged has is very appealing to become a part of, so we are integrating into that world.”
The keys to serial production
As a batch manufacturing process, metal binder jetting is the exciting technology in the additive manufacturing space with serial production capability.
Most 3D printing technologies are built part-by-part, scaling by adding more or less printers, whereas this technology allows many parts to be built at the same time. There becomes no real difference building one or one thousand parts, which is the magic of metal binder jetting.
It has well and truly emerged as a powerful tool for manufacturers to reduce their time to market and increase flexibility. As Lönne explained, the technology enables designers to iterate their designs quickly and produce parts in a serial manner, without having to go through a long industrialisation phase.
Markforged’s Metal Binder Jetting 3D printer – the PX100 – aims to bring manufacturing home, offering supply chain resilience and capabilities to manufacture small to large-scale serial production of metal parts at the point of need.
The new version of the PX100 has basically doubled its print-speed without losing the quality of the surface finish on the parts. The machine is also gas-tight, which is important for applications with reactive materials.
“It gives an ability to go from prototyping to production seamlessly,” Lönne said. “You don’t have to do a lot of lower prototyping at the start to then find a way to produce your part. Once you’re happy with your design and iterations, you’re straight onto serial printing.”
Developed by Digital Metal over nearly 20 years, Digital Metals has made many incremental changes on the platform – including a new technology co-developed with an Australian company – but the base technology remains the same.
The printer offers a unique combination of high precision and high throughput to ensure the user gets a robust production solution as well as being a future-proof platform to support manufacturing needs – both foreseen and unforeseen – in the future.
“One of the unique things with Digital Metal platforms is that the owner can upgrade the printer and modify it to the latest specs, so even if you bought your printer five, six years ago, you can upgrade it to the latest standard,” he said.
“That means you can protect your investment because you don’t have to buy a new printer when technology updates.”
Simply put, the PX100 allows for change. When a business wants to change design, it can simply stop printing, make the necessary changes and start printing the new design, bypassing the tedious but necessary changes required in other manufacturing processes.
For instance, in injection moulding operations, a new design can take up to six months and comes with a hefty added expense. This limits flexibility, as you need to make the same part over and over and do a large series to pay off that investment.
Lönne noted how companies will adopt this technology in the future is one to watch, especially given the shorter product life cycles industry is experiencing.
“People are used to changing designs or changing formats much quicker, which is why it fits very well,” he noted. “I think it will become a mentality – people expect that if you need to change, you won’t have to go through different bottlenecks to reach the end result.”
As the pace of innovation continues to accelerate, more businesses are having to adapt quickly to changing market conditions. The increasing demand for customisation, speed, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability in manufacturing is expected to drive the uptake of additive manufacturing in the coming years.
Lönne explained that it will take time to learn how to design components and learn the benefits, but there will be a massive impact on supply chains.
“The cool thing with additive manufacturing is it is mainly capital expenditure, so it negates the different expense of parts from different countries problem,” he said.
“The production costs are more or less the same wherever the printer is in the world, which I imagine would be a huge deal for the more remote countries in increasing competitiveness and keeping manufacturing onshore.”
For now, Markforged’s focus is on providing real value, real products with customer applications and lowering total cost of ownership.
“It’s difficult to understand how we will stay with subtractive manufacturing when you see the power of additive manufacturing, but there is a lot of work still to be done,” Lönne said.
“The inherent benefits of 3D printing is the sort of freedom that you get to design parts without having preconception in your mind. Today, a lot of leading designers probably did their education and training before additive manufacturing was big. If you come out of university now and you’ve been soaked in additive manufacturing, I think you’re going to expect to do different geometries and expect the parts of the future to look different.”
Swinburne University’s Aerostructures Innovation Research (AIR) Hub is one of the leaders of this innovation push at both the education and industry level. AIR Hub director Adriano Di Pietro said that Markforged is doing a sterling job of getting the latest tech into the hands of industry, educators and students.
“We want to have this technology for graduate engineers with these skills in mind, because we see it as an application skill set challenge,” Di Pietro said.
“Additive manufacturing (AM) is playing a very significant role, particularly driving innovation in aerospace. We’re hearing aircraft manufacturers, maintenance repair overhaul organisations and all sides of industry show interest in AM.
We’ve seen advisory circulars coming from our regulators specifically around AM. We know that Australia is playing a leading role in defence field applications and we’re actually playing a leading role in maintenance repair overhaul organisations as well.”