This year alone, numerous companies have unveiled processes for 3D printing metals more affordably than previously possible, either through indirect methods—as is the case with Markforged, Admatec and Desktop Metal—or direct methods—as is the case with Xact Metal. One thing that these firms have not been able to significantly improve upon is speed.
The LIGHTSPEE3D 3D printer from SPEE3D uses a supersonic deposition technique to 3D print metals at speeds that are 100 to 1,000 times faster than traditional metal 3D printing technologies. (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)
A startup in Australia named SPEE3D seeks to change that with a unique method of metal deposition that can achieve speeds that are 100 to 1,000 times faster than traditional approaches. As a result, the technology can 3D print an object in just 10 minutes.
ENGINEERING.com spoke to Byron Kennedy, cofounder and CEO of SPEE3D, to learn about the technology and how it achieves these remarkable speeds.
SPEE3D isn’t Kennedy’s first time on the startup rodeo. With his cofounder and CTO, Steve Camilleri, Kennedy previously spun a company out of Charles Darwin University. In Motion Technologies was focused on axial flux electric motors, for use in electric bikes, evaporative air conditioners and non-road electric vehicles, and worked with such large manufacturers as Avanti, Seeley International and John Deere.
In Motion was ultimately acquired by Fasco Motors, a division of New York Stock Exchange-listed Regal Beloit, where Kennedy worked as R&D Director. It was during this time that Kennedy became familiar with large volume production.
“We learned a lot about production and the day-to-day requirements of taking a product from a university idea all the way through to production,” Kennedy said. “We saw metal 3D printing coming, but realized that the technology was just too slow and too expensive for normal production. It’s fantastic for aerospace, medical and dental, and other high-priced, low-volume applications. But in the world where we lived, which was production, it just wasn’t going to cut it.”
With that in mind, Kennedy and Camilleri sought to develop a metal 3D printing technology that was capable of keeping pace with the needs of actual industrial production and decided to create SPEE3D.
Supersonic 3D Printing
“We looked at various technologies,” Kennedy said. “And we came across cold spray, which is a technology used in the military and for repair applications. We looked at the advantages, and it really suited what we were trying to do. From there, we built the technology.”
Cold spray deposition relies on accelerating solid powders using supersonic gas jets to speeds of up to 500 to 1,000 m/s. The sheer kinetic energy of the particles causes the powders to deform and stick to the substrate.
SPEE3D calls its take on the process “supersonic 3D deposition” or “SP3D.” In the SP3D process, a rocket nozzle accelerates air up to three times the speed of sound and injected powders are deposited onto a substrate that is attached to a six-axis robotic arm. This range of motion makes it possible to 3D print 45-degree overhangs without support structures, as well as cooling channels.
The resolution of the company’s LIGHTSPEE3D metal 3D printer is limited so that it can’t, for example, produce complex lattice works, but that’s not quite necessary when 3D printing the types of objects that SPEE3D has in mind, such as parts that weigh more than half a kilogram or even tens of kilograms.
By relying on supersonic deposition, SP3D does not have to rely on heat or any other process that may change the properties of the metal power.
“The beauty of this is that there’s no heat involved, no melting,” Kennedy said. “Therefore, the process is very fast. The other advantage of what we’re doing is we use no inert gases, no argon, no nitrogen. It’s all done in open air. Thus, the process is very cheap.”
3D Printing to Replace Casting
The cold spray technique may open up the process to a wider variety of materials, which would otherwise require very high melting temperatures. Kennedy said that, for now, SPEE3D is focused specifically on aluminum and copper because the company plans to target the casting industry.
SPEE3D CEO Byron Kennedy pouring copper powder in front of the LIGHTSPEE3D machine. (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)
“The market for aluminum is very big in the world. It opens up the automotive sector, the aerospace sector, general industry. More broadly, the technology can be used for other materials. The obvious next place for us is steel and other materials, but that’s not what we’re working on today. At this time, our focus is on aluminum and copper.”
The LIGHTSPEE3D machine 3D printing a putter. (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)
Kennedy sees the casting market as one that has been somewhat neglected by 3D printing, in that manufacturers may be more attentive to specialty applications, such as 3D printing intricate crown molds. For SPEE3D, the target isn’t these beautiful parts, but practical parts that are crucial in manufacturing.
“The technology is about actually making real-world parts, making them quickly and making them economically,” Kennedy said. This includes items that would be otherwise made with sand or die casting, such as brackets, adapters, pulleys and other components regularly used in industry. Most of these parts are made of aluminum, but copper can also be used to create heat sinks necessary for removing heat from a component quickly.
For SPEE3D, the target is midrange volumes of up to 10,000 pieces, the point at which the SP3D process will be cheaper than casting. With such volumes, the SP3D process would be ideal for use in a factory environment. For this reason, the company has incorporated the six-axis robot, which not only gives the process a greater range of motion, but also makes it easier to integrate onto the production floor.
The completed 3D-printed putter. (Image courtesy of SPEE3D.)
“3D printing has really been designed for prototyping: one-off parts where you’ve got to inspect them manually. You’re either doing batch printing of 100 parts in one print or one larger print,” Kennedy pointed out. “For manufacturing, however, the holy grail is just-in-time production. Being able to load and unload automatically using a robot, having that single-piece workflow, gives you the flexibility necessary for such an environment.”
In SP3D, the size of the build is dependent on the size of the robot. Hypothetically, it would be possible to incorporate a much larger robot to 3D print much larger parts or batches of parts.
It’s important to note that the company is still new, however. Although SPEE3D has already begun producing and selling machines, with Charles Darwin University buying one LIGHTSPEE3D machine using a government grant, the official launch of SP3D technology won’t happen until this fall at formnext. At that point, full specifications, pricing and more will be unveiled.
Until then, you can learn more about SPEE3D at the company website.