The history of 3D printing is not too long but it is incredibly rich with fascinating stories and people behind them. It all started with a small group of scientists, engineers and businessmen, mostly in America, Germany and Israel. These pioneers invented the primary vat, powder bed and jetting-based AM processes. The young AM industry was tiny and they all knew each other. Today it has grown enormously but it is still at the beginning of its potential growth cycle. The basic concepts are still the same, as processes accelerate and achieve greater precision, material selection grows, adoption and applications expand. The opening of XJet’s AM service center for nanoparticle jetting of metals and ceramics gave us the opportunity to speak with one of the industry’s first pioneers, Haim Levi who today is XJet’s VP for Defense and Industrial Manufacturing. In other words, he is the person in charge of building up adoption in key industrial markets.
In this scenario, the ability to jet materials through millions of tiny nozzles in order to achieve voxel level control is becoming more relevant, since it can now be used to jet not only photopolymer resins but metal and ceramic nanoparticles as well. This is the innovation that XJet has brought to AM. The company was founded by many of the same people who created polyjet technology and had mastered 2D inkjetting before that.
Haim Levi was there in the beginning. In 1986, just as Chuck Hull founded 3D Systems, Levi founded Cubital, introducing an extremely complex mask-based DLP-like process. Cubital was a spinoff of Scitex, already a large format 2D printing inkjet global leader and now part of HP’s $100 billion large format digital printing empire. Cubital’s system proved too complex for its time and the company went out of business in 2000. “I have been in this field for 32 years,” he recalls. “I was one of the two founders of Cubital and we developed a beautiful machine, bigger and even more complex than XJet’s, with a 500 x 500 x 400 mm build volume. Since then I have worked with Hanan Gothait [one of the inventors of polyjet, founder of XJet] and Dror Danai in developing Objet and Stratasys into what they are today. At Objet I was responsible for sales and marketing in Western Europe. Dror [Danai] was VP of marketing and we have been working together for a long time. After he moved to become XJet’s CBO, I joined him here as VP of Industrial Manufacturing.”
Where do you see XJet going and how is it different from your previous experiences?
“First of all, we are now operating in metals and ceramics, which are completely different from polymers. I consider this field to have been started by EOS in 1992 and then further developed by Emmanuel – Ely – Sachs with binder jetting. However, now we are using material jetting technology to produce metal and ceramic parts. Inkjet is excellent for both 2D and 3D printing because it allows you to have full control, droplet by droplet. This gives you the possibility to make really accurate and highly detailed parts.”
How does nanoparticle jetting compare to other metal technologies?
“I think that this process is much more advanced than any other binder jetting or PBF process, whether it’s laser or electron beam. This is also the only technology that, sometime in the future, will be able to do multi-material parts. Every voxel theoretically can be made of different material: this is real digital metal. This does not mean that I look down on other technologies. I believe that powder bed fusion will have its place as a primary technology, the workhorse to make large, complex parts. Metal binder jetting will enable even larger batches at even lower costs. However, nanoparticle jetting gives us incredible possibilities, such as the ability to one day make parts that are both ceramic and metal, and address markets that may not even exist today.”
How does HP getting into the metal AM game affect your plans?
“First of all, personally, I think the whole industry is warmly welcoming HP into the additive manufacturing business. Never mind what they do. The mere fact that a company like HP took a strategic decision go into metal AM is very important. We are very happy to see them go into this field not just as end-users but also as a player, like GE. This gives a huge boost to the whole industry. And yes, they are masters of inkjet. They chose binder-based technology and accelerated, evolved the process. But it remains binder jetting, which is okay of course.”
What if they decide to get into jetting nanoparticles, how would you compete?
“If they did go into jetting nanoparticles first they may find patent issues. Of course, XJet is creating a heavy belt of patents around its technology and process. Even if they did venture into this technology they will give the same push and will open up the markets to demand the quality of direct material jetting. We believe that the market’s future is huge, large enough for everyone. It is unlikely that even a huge company like HP will really wipe out all the others. And many opportunities for collaboration may also emerge.”
Do you think they would be able to catch up?
“It’s not easy to do what we do. It’s very different from jetting polymers and binders. It’s really challenging to develop the suspension that we have and it’s challenging to get the nanoparticles floating properly and then manage the flow of liquid throughout all containers, pumps, pipes and printing head, down to the piezoelectric cells, ensuring that it only solidifies when it should and not before. HP has the resources and know-how to achieve this but it will take time.”
Back to ceramics, what are the market challenges? Are you under pressure from more affordable processes such as binder jetting or even upcoming CIM-based approaches?
“More and more industries are starting to learn that ceramics can perform where even the best metal cannot. And today, with a huge demand for more power, jet engines and internal combustion engine need to run at much higher temperatures. Once metals reach their limits, technical ceramics will start to shine. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the whole technical ceramics world is growing and you can see it in the numbers. Today additive manufacturing of ceramics is a tiny, almost non-existent niche. We know the need exists for short runs, which is the same thing that happened in polymers first and with metals later. However, the difference is that the overall technical ceramics and ceramics AM segments are growing together.
And this means double growth potential…
“Yes, parallel growth and thus a huge opportunity. To answer your initial question, there will be a need for relatively lower quality and lower cost parts in certain applications. But today ceramics are used in high-end applications such as jet engines, automotive engines, nuclear plants, heat exchangers, and in the PCB industry, where you need top quality, very clean and precise parts. The primary demand will continue to be for high quality. This is good news for us even though we realize that it will take time to invest more in marketing education. To this end, we are in contact with several leading technical ceramic companies and they are very interested in what we can offer. We are also working closely with Ceramic Expo in the U.S. and the Ceramic Tech conference that takes place every two years in Munich.”
You mentioned short runs, what do you mean exactly? How competitive can nanoparticle jetting be in final part production?
“The definition of short runs is changing. Looking back 32 years, when we started in 1987-1988, we defined short runs as 10–15 units – we called them models. I think we called it ‘fast modeling’, as we moved from handmade models to machines that could make 10 to 15 units. A few years later the definition was applied to series of 500, then 1,000 units. The last thing I heard, about a week and a half ago, was one hundred thousand. I think that’s a shocker. One hundred thousand units! I’m all with it. Incidentally, the definition of prototyping is also changing. In the past when we said prototype we meant one or two at most. Today, a prototype could be 500 iterations and variations of the same model.”
Are you looking at new metals? If so which ones? Which are the challenges of introducing new materials for NPJ?
“The decision of which material to offer is, first of all, a business-related one. Though there are technical aspects as well, that is not the main challenge. We need to have the demand. There are some metals we need to introduce first: titanium, aluminum, several types of stainless steel beyond 316, Maraging steel. These are all in line. Some other ones may come later such as cobalt-chrome and Inconel. We are not announcing a specific one now but we have several options that we are working on. Materials and machines need to adapt to each other, it’s like a marriage. That’s why we don’t believe there will be real competition from secondary source materials. Further down the line, we may be looking at different material combinations. This is the future.”
What about new ceramic materials?
“It’s the same story. We started with zirconia and the next will be alumina, which is almost ready. Next in line may be silicon carbide, which has huge applications in the sensing industry, since it is ideal for sensing oxygen ions in any kind of combustion.”
In AM, everyone is looking at automating the entire process line, from end to end, lights out, no humans. A key advantage of XJet’s technology is that you just need water to remove supports before sintering the part. Are you planning on doing more to automate even this process?
“I don’t see why not. Our technology also allows for zero emissions so it’s a favorable environment for human workers. However, we could also have a robot to move the parts from the system to the post-processing stations. Our systems lend themselves to automation. We are not there yet. It will take time. I don’t think that others are there yet either. We don’t think we need to give a solution right away but we are preparing. In our AM service center, there are no sieving stations, no filtering and no ventilation to account for. Since we are not working with powders we are more mature for increased automation. In addition, the systems are already networked and can be connected to a computer or smartphone for process management. I don’t see any technical hurdle but it depends on how deep additive manufacturing will proliferate. It’s a bit like the proverbial hen and the egg. The more companies will adopt AM the more they will require increased automation; the more automation we can provide, the more they will adopt AM.”
Which are your key markets for expansion? Where are you expecting the most growth?
“Mostly the United States and Canada. North America and Europe are key markets but we are very open to the Far East as well. We have good contacts there. We know there are huge markets and that we need a presence in the local channels. We are now beginning to lay down our channels network. We started with Carfulan in the UK and have more in the pipeline.”
If ordered today, how long does it take now to get a system?
“We are looking at something between four to six months. We are still at the beginning and we are looking at a target 90 days wait time.”