While much of the metal additive manufacturing market is focused on broadening material support, Italy-based 3D4STEEL has honed in on one material in particular: steel. Recognized as one of the most affordable, versatile and widely available materials in manufacturing, steel has an undeniable part to play in the future of manufacturing.
For this reason and others, 3D4STEEL founders Ivano Corsini and Gabriele Carloni have developed a range of innovative 3D printers dedicated exclusively to steel materials. The steel 3D printing solution was initially introduced in March 2018—when we spoke to Corsini about 3D4STEEL—and we recently got the chance to catch up with the 3D4STEEL founder to see how the AM and manufacturing landscape has reacted to his company’s steel-focused systems over the past few months.
Davide Sher: How were these first months after the official launch of the first 3D4STEEL system?
Ivano Corsini: Being the first Italian company to have developed a 3D printer from top to bottom, with proprietary technology, we have had more than favorable feedback from the Italian business community. I believe that the Italian industry is tired of having to look abroad to find innovative technologies and the feedback that Italian entrepreneurs have given me has been a source of great pride.
Still, there are not many companies that have understood how additive manufacturing can bring streamline the production process and offer a flexibility that has never been achieved before. For example, I come from sectors where traditional production methods still dominate (mechanical production and mechatronics) and I deeply understand the doubts that can be had when talking about a revolution of this magnitude.
Despite this, I have maximized our efforts to make sure that even my companies could exploit all the potential of additive manufacturing, building a 3D printing system for steels entirely designed to endorse industrial production needs. Now, I do not want to say that 3D printing will completely replace chip removal, but I am more than convinced that within five years there will no longer be a mechanical company that has not adopted a 3D printing system for metals.
DS: Which sectors have shown the most interest in your steel 3D printing so far?
IC: As many have probably noticed, 3D printing has a huge media impact, so the list of the curious is very long and is made up of all the industrial sectors and beyond. Starting from the mechanics, passing through the naval and even coming to design.
However, it is important for me to make this clarification because the 3D4STEEL system is designed and built for mechanical production, not for design applications. Mechanical production of components or spare parts in steel, which in certain specific sectors, such as mechanics and packaging, is certainly the main material. In particular, we have received extreme interest from those companies that deal with machines that must absolutely use 316L steel. These industries are those of packaging, food, naval, war, pharmaceutical and cosmetics.
DS: What are the most interesting application areas for you?
IC: My past (and present) as a mechanical entrepreneur has strongly influenced the development of my 3D printing system for steels. Steel, in all its forms and alterations, is the most available material and affordable material in the mechanical industry. The sectors in which steel is the most used material—such as mechanical, packaging, food and pharmaceutical—are certainly those in which the adoption of the 3D4STEEL printer would bring the maximum production yield.
Our promise is clear: produce steel components faster and cut costs. The crucial aspect of optimizing production lies in the choice of the pieces and the quantity to be produced. Just to shed light on this concept, I’m writing a book about my production approach with 3D printing which will be called “CORSYSTEM: how to produce faster and earn more money by inserting a 3D printer into a mechanical production flow.”
DS: What are the most important results achieved to date?
IC: These first months on the market have given us the opportunity to interface with many companies that deal with mechanics and packaging and, thanks to the work we’ve done together, we have further improved the machine. The highlight of this joint study has certainly been the development of our exclusive patent for automatic recycling and recovery of powders. Thanks to this system, we have made sure that the non-sintered powder is automatically filtered, recycled and returned to the tank. In this way, we have managed to further improve the setup and printing times, thus favoring the speed of the production cycle. We must also consider the fact that, thanks to this system, the operator is put in a position to come into contact with fine particles as little as possible.
The security of our 3D printer is an extremely important point. To further increase the safety of operators, we have developed a certified procedure for the disposal of filters and we have obtained the classification of Non-Hazardous Special Refusal. Unlike the other manufacturers of 3D printers, our procedure makes sure that the exhausted filter is not immersed in water, eliminating the potential for explosions or fires (caused by electrostatic charges), but can be disposed of in total security as a generic metallic waste.
DS: Are you content to stay focused on steels? What are the advantages of these materials?
IC: I must say that it is not a matter of being happy or not. To promote production using a 3D metal printer, the specialization on a single family of materials is the only way to go. It always depends on the use that you intend to make of the 3D printer. For certain applications, the possibility of being able to change material is certainly an important factor. As far as mechanical production is concerned, it is important to use a system specialized in the use of the material to be used.
Our focus on the development of a specialized 3D printer made sure that every technical feature was designed and optimized for the use of steel, starting from the inert gas used up to the power distribution system. Steels are the least expensive materials among all 3D printable powders and guarantee a mechanical resistance superior to any other material. In the case of the 316L, we also speak of a stainless steel, resistant to any corrosive phenomenon and of a high hygienic coefficient. These factors make the steels the ideal materials for many applications.
DS: Which steels have already been optimized or tested for the printer?
IC: Currently, the 316L is the type of steel that that most interests our customers. We have also used steels for molds, maraging, 304, H11 and H13, all with more than satisfactory results. Generally, we face every type of steel when we realize that our customer has very specific needs. Certain types of steels have mechanical characteristics that are more suitable for certain types of use. More than anything else, our tests are performed on samples of the 3 most common steels (316L, 304L and H13) of different producers of different powders.
This is a very important fact because it emphasizes the fact that we do not directly sell the powders, but we optimize our machine according to the powder that the customer chooses, only after a thorough analysis and collaboration. We give the possibility to use any type of steel powder from any manufacturer. We are the first to offer such an opportunity. We are also always willing to collaborate directly with the powder producers for additive manufacturing and to establish a partnership for the development of specific profiles for our printer, which provide the settings for the use of their powder. To enable the use of any powder we give our customers the important possibility of being able to freely modify the printing parameters, such as layer height, laser spot and so on, even during the printing phase.
DS: Can you give us some concrete examples of how the 3D4Steel printer can reduce production time?
IC: An accelerated production time depends on a series of factors. First of all, we must take into account the appearance of the machine and pre-press cleaning, to which we have paid much attention. Secondly, we have developed a patented recoater spatula system designed specifically for the distribution of steel powders. This system allows us to greatly reduce the time of powder distribution on the printing plate, the so-called dead time. All this translates into extremely fast production times, especially on the Z axis.
Another factor for the production is the use of only one single cylinder in the printing chamber, which guarantees the maximum yield and the most precise distribution of the powder. With a single cylinder, our printer guarantees a homogeneous distribution over the entire printing plate, thus avoiding imperfections and inconsistent geometries. To enter more deeply into the technical aspects I invite those interested in the production of steel components, to connect with us.
DS: How do you see additive manufacturing in the future of production? How much will production methods change?
IC: The numbers speak clearly. The additive industry, especially metal, is growing exponentially. I firmly believe that in the space of 5 years, 3D printers will be widespread in all mechanical companies. Additive manufacturing will change production methods enormously, as it has already radically changed mine and that of many other companies. However, I believe that we are on a dangerous road which risks bringing this technology to a point of no return. I’m talking about the unbridled rush to enlarge the size of the print plates.
The common belief is that the bigger it is, the better it is. But are we sure it’s really like that? As far as mass production of large objects is concerned, additive technology does not come close in terms of costs and time to a traditional production method. The mistake is that many think it’s worth developing large components with a 3D printer, when in reality it is the choice of components that justifies a series production.
DS: You will participate in formnext 2018 as one of the two Italian manufacturers of metal hardware systems. What is the purpose of this participation at the Frankfurt fair?
IC: We have something special in store for formnext. I do not want to talk about it too much not to reveal the surprise. I can only say that it will not be a stand open to the curious, but it will be dedicated to those who are really interested in learning about and adopting our method for production. The goal is to appreciate only those who are really interested in the benefits of a 3D printing system specialized for a specific material, completely customized in every characteristic and able to use the most suitable powder. It is possible that we will present in collaboration with one of our powder producer partners.