Feb. 24, 2015 | By Alec

While plastic FDM 3D printing is great fun, many experts believe that metal 3D printers are the machines that are going to truly challenge traditional manufacturing technologies. And in that respect, the giant MPA 40 machine that has just been unveiled by German machine tool manufacturers Hermle could be a real game changer. For not only is it a giant and highly efficient metal manufacturing machine, it also 3D prints metal in a quite unusual way.

For those of you who’ve never heard of them before, Hermle is one of the world’s leading producers of milling machines, headquarted in a miniscule village in southern Germany, and known for developing innovative new technologies. This particular 3D printing/milling machine is the result of a seven-year development process at the company’s R&D center in Ottobrunn, that involved at least twenty engineers, and is quite different from most metal 3D printers we come across.

For starters, it's a giant 5-axis machine that combines 3D printing with milling. But perhaps most interesting is its printing technology. For while most metal 3D printers rely on laser sintering or laser melting technologies, the MPA 40 3D prints metal objects using a complicated technology sometimes called ‘micro-forging’. In essence, it relies on a thermal spraying process that enables low-energy kinetic compacting and can be seen as a significant and highly innovative leap as far as high-quality metal component production is concerned.

And this is how it basically works. Like a typical 3D printer, the MPA 40 processes CAD files, but it 3D prints in metal powders (the ‘filament’) that are suspended in nitrogen. Once a task is given, the machine 3D prints the object by propelling these metal powders through a jet of super-heated steam onto a substrate at the mind-blowing speed of three times the speed of sound. This absurd speed and the sheer heat creates tremendous pressures of 10 GPa and even temperatures of up to 1,000°C. The result? The fine powder is forged together on a miniscule level through a localised super-plastic deformation, or micro-forging. The completely dense layers that are forged together are further processed by up to five CNC axes to ensure the highest quality levels, before more layers are blasted on top of the first ones. The entire manufacturing process can be followed by heat treatment and water quenching as well.

This process is not only highly precise, but it is also capable of ‘mixing’ different materials by putting one layer on top of the other, with either a sharp or a smooth transition between them; if you want, you can even make smooth objects consisting of up to six different metals. The following metal powders have currently been incorporated into the MPA 40’s capacity: 1.2344 and 1.2367 hot-working steels, 1.4404 stainless steel, copper, bronze, titanium and aluminium. The powders used are incredibly fine, sized somewhere between 25 and 75 microns, depending on the metal used.

And as the sheer size of the machine implies, it can also produce objects that are quite large indeed: components can be up to 550 mm in diameter, 460 mm deep and even weigh up to 600 kg. And yet deposition rate of the metal powders is quite high too – in case of steel speeds are reached of up to 5 cm3 per minute. Manufacturing options include the use of a water-soluble filler material to create internal features, which could for instance be used to create cooling channels in 3D printed injection molds.

Of course, all this requires quite a software package to keep it running and Hermle obviously developed its own CAM software. It currently includes options for layer-by-layer analysis, machining to build the component geometry, as well as sequence simulation and quality assurance functions. It should, the manufacturers argue, ensure that highly reproducible and high quality components can be perfectly made in both small and large batches.

Though obviously far, far beyond the reach of consumer 3D printing enthusiasts, the MPA 40 3D printer/CNC machine is looking like a truly revolutionary device that definitely has the potential to rock the foundations of metal manufacturing. While not yet for sale, the Germans from Hermle are currently consulting with potential customers to identity potential applications and to see how they can make their device as practical as possible. British reports suggest that George Kingsbury, a franchise dealer of Hermle products in the UK and Ireland is currently doing the same in its market.



Posted in 3D Printers


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