MICRON3DP is an Israeli startup that began to attract the attention of international AM markets by introducing a unique 3D printing technology that employed one of the AM industry’s most sought-after material: glass. While it is one of the most commonly used, affordable and versatile materials, glass is also one of the most challenging to effectively 3D print. Most attempts used either powdered glass, thus losing in transparency, or molten and extruded glass, thus losing out in terms of accessibility, accuracy and geometry. MICRON3DP’s technology belonged to the latter type, adding significant improvements in terms of accuracy. The technology was so successful that it even inspired Swarovski to collaborate and, for the first time, Swarovski ’s crystal glass was 3D printed by MICRON3DP, and displayed at the Art Basel show. Building the market, however, is proving to be more challenging than developing the technology so MICRON3DP, with the support of its main investor – Israeli metal-cutting tools leader ISCAR – is expanding its focus to the rapidly growing segment of MIM-based additive manufacturing. We caught up with the company’s CTO, Eran Galor, to discuss this latest shift and the upcoming opportunities that it may bring.
“Everybody knows that glass 3D printing technology is a new technology and, in a way, it’s like early fiber optics when it was invented back in the ‘80s. Nobody knew what it would be useful for because the internet had not been invented yet. I think that it could be the same: we cannot clearly pinpoint the market yet, but it could become a huge opportunity.”Eran Galor, CTO, Micron 3DP
Davide Sher: Can you explain a little bit more about the process?
Eran Galor: “The raw material we use is glass with no added binder: just pure glass, it can be soda lime glass or borosilicate. Soda lime is like almost every glass cup or coke bottle, is made from soda lime, which is a relatively low-temperature glass. Its melting temperature is about 900° to 1000° Celsius. The other material is borosilicate. This is the engineering glass used for lab tools. So we take this type of glass and we melt them using a very unique process to heat it from room temperature to more than 1000° Celsius in a few seconds and we extrude it through a very fine nozzle. Then we deposit it and build with 100-micron layers. It all has to take place inside a heated chamber and then it has to cool down gradually through a process called annealing. This is done with software, automatically, without any post-processing required. Of course, you can smooth it, polish it or drill it with a diamond tool.”
DS: You talked about the market challenges. What are other challenges that need to be overcome and for this technology to become more widely adopted as a production method for glass?
EG: “I think that technology-wise we really achieved a breakthrough. The main challenge is educating the market. For example, when the first plastic injection molding was invented the first engineers designed the plastic molds to look like pieces of wood because that is what they were used to. Now engineers need to know how to design for 3D printing glass or metal, instead of just using traditional shapes. There’s also an issue worldwide because traditional glass blowers are vanishing. This trade is taught less and less but you still need these capabilities for laboratory tools for chemicals, drugs, biology. You need glass because it doesn’t react with almost anything. Drug companies will probably need this technology in the future and they will need to adapt. There will be a tipping point when that happens.”
DS: It seems that with glass this tipping point may be a little bit further down the line than with other materials. Is that because it is not an expensive material and thus you really need to have high productivity to make it cost-effective?
EG: “Actually there is cheap glass and expensive glass but the main challenge is to understand the limitation and the benefits of the technology. For example, if you walk into a lab and you’re used to certain types of geometries but with 3D printing, you can make almost any shape. For example, we had a collaboration with the University of Helsinki in Finland. They designed with us a new microfluidic tool. We printed it in less than 10 minutes and it was a very complicated and complex model used to analyze germs and viruses that don’t have any antibiotic solution.”
DS: Will you continue your research and development on glass AM technology as you focus on metal as well?
EG: “We will not continue to actively develop it and commercialize it however we keep it as an always viable option as soon as market demand increases.”
DS: Is your metal 3D printing approach based on your previous glass 3D printing research?
EG: “It’s actually a completely different technology, based on metal injection molding materials. There are already a few other companies taking this approach. For example Desktop Metal and MarkForged. The real challenge here is the speed because 3D printing is extremely slow and expensive. You may have to wait 5 or 10 hours for a simple part. We tackled that issue. Our high-speed metal 3D printing is extremely fast and yet accurate, we’re talking about 10 times or faster than competitors, with a lower machine price.”
DS: Is this approach based on a binder jetting type process or a bound-metal, filament process?
EG: It’s actually a little of both. Our primary investor, ISCAR, has extensive experience in MIM. We developed a way to print MIM feedstock at really high speeds.”
DS: Which materials can the Micron3DP MIM additive process support?
EG: “Any alloy that you can think of. It can be Steel, 4340 Stainless, Steel 17-4PH, titanium… Almost any type of alloy.”
DS: When do you think that you will be able to actually have the metal system on the market?
EG: “We now have a working prototype at our facility and we plan to release a beta machine for the first customers within 18 months. Once we will receive a positive feedback from the beta customer, we will move into the production phase. This is a reasonable time frame. It’s a new technology so we need to have customer their feedbacks. We were recently accepted into Techstars Stanley Black & Decker accelerator , one of the top accelerators in the world, . Our CEO is now in Connecticut to further develop our business strategy and we expect to have a lot more news very soon.”