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AM lasers will never be the same

3DM’s unique approach to polymer L-PBF 3D printing enables users to adapt the laser’s frequency to each and every material, promising faster, higher quality parts

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3DM is an Israeli startup, founded in 2016 and trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange since 2021. The company has just emerged from stealth and it is now ready to scale by offering something truly unique in the SLS – or polymer L-PBF, to be precise – global landscape: a quantum cascade laser (QCL) technology that can deliver industrial-grade printing quality, with any thermoplastic material, at a significantly lower printing cost compared to existing technologies.

While higher quality and lower costs may sound like something that many companies promise in 3D printing, 3DM can leverage a unique knowledge of laser properties in order to deliver the ability to adapt the laser to the material by modifying the laser frequency to exactly fit a specific material’s melting properties (this is why the company prefers to refer to this process as “melting” rather than “sintering”) rather than many other, far less influential, parameters. The technology was developed by Daniel Majer, 3DM’s founder, and CTO, who holds a Ph.D. degree in physics from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Daniel has an almost all-encompassing experience with lasers – in both designing and developing lasers, as well as in the production processes – and has led companies in the field for the last 30 years.

The patented technology enabling the company to do this is found within the in-house-developed, state-of-the-art SLS printheads – which are based on a parallel laser beam approach that accelerates printing speed and throughput while increasing printing resolution and mechanical strength (mostly on the Z-axis). Seeing the stylish and futuristic design of the 3DM printheads helps to convey that these are not just new lasers but represent an entirely new approach to laser-based polymer 3D printing, and have the potential to shape the AM industry for years to come.

Each laser is diced into many laser components, after which each component is carefully checked and tested, and assembled on a cooling apparatus alongside a collimating lens and a driver. Once assembled, these components form a ‘laser module’.

As all laser-based polymer PBF technologies need to face increased competition from high throughput thermal PBF technologies, the ability to proficiently use a much wider selection of materials is going to become the key selling point. This is what 3DM can offer, adapting to the requirements of machines of any cost and grade.

At the laser’s origin

3DM’s lasers are manufactured in dedicated FABs, on wafers, based on semiconductors manufacturing processes. Once the lasers have been created, each is diced into many laser components, after which each component is carefully checked and tested, and assembled on a cooling apparatus alongside a collimating lens and a driver. Once assembled, these components form a ‘laser module’.

Four different laser modules are then assembled into one case, together with other optic elements that combine all the lasers into one high-quality, high-power beam – AKA the beamhead that generates a melting laser spot on the powder.

In terms of scalability – many beamheads can be aggregated to form a print head that is potentially the size of any scanning area.

QCL frequencies are adaptable to every material, with 3DM's beamhead promising faster, higher quality parts in laser-based polymer PBF
Four different QCL laser modules are assembled into one case, together with other optic elements that combine all the lasers into one high-quality, high-power beam – AKA the beamhead (seen in this image) that generates a melting laser spot on the powder.

There are other optic elements in the beamhead for focus, scanning, and unifying all the laser beams. Four of them together are positioned on the plate with cameras used for the stitching mechanism. 3DM can control where each laser and each beam start and end, via a specially designed algorithm. “It’s a high-power semiconductor laser, that’s small and economical,” Ido explains. “We now use between one and four lasers, but it would not be that far-fetched to integrate up to 8 QCL lasers in the beamhead to make it even stronger.

“There are many other technical advantages in this approach,” Ido continues. “[These include] the optimal wavelength of our beam, which is shorter, as well as the spot size, which is roughly half the size of a traditional SLS laser. Other key features of 3DM technology include the melting efficiency, the fact that we melt and not only sinter, the scalability, the smaller size of the beamhead compared with CO2 lasers, and the impact that has on our ability to control the heat applied to the powder bed, among several others,” Ido tells 3dpbm. All these features result in better surface finish and higher details as well as the ability to produce parts that are isotropic, which means they have better mechanical properties than industry standard parts. Finally, while the QCL lasers are less powerful, they can be more efficient than CO2 lasers, which can result in the ability to print faster, even on more cost-effective materials such as polypropylene, making this technology better suited for production applications.

Tailoring a QCL to the material

3DM’s lasers have no inherent limitations on how many different materials they can print. Once the ideal wavelength has been identified and calibrated, the QCL will print anything from nylon to PEEK. If anything, the limitations are often due to the system used, rather than the laser source. For example, some systems may only be able to withstand certain temperatures, and the laser is then limited to the capacity of the system itself.

QCL frequencies are adaptable to every material, with 3DM's beamhead promising faster, higher quality parts in laser-based polymer PBFThe ability to tailor the laser’s wavelength opens new material opportunities and, at the same time, makes the printing process much easier to set up. In standard SLS 3D printing, users can only modify mechanical parameters that are related to how thick the material is or how fast the roller moves. Other parameters may include the IR lamp’s temperature and how long it takes to reach that temperature and heat the powder bed evenly and how consistent it is across the entire built area, et cetera.

Only then do the mechanical parameters relative to the laser itself come into play. For example, the laser power, how quickly it varies for each section, and the different parameters for the contour, including size and speed.

“We can achieve laser by design at any wavelength between four and 15 microns, which, as anyone coming from the chemistry industry would tell you, is what thermoplastics require. In addition, when using CO2 lasers, you may have to compensate for the lack of efficiency with more laser power, or by applying the laser for a longer time – Ido continues – but then you end up with artifacts that are less accurate. Ido shows us charts demonstrating the ideal energy absorption of three different materials: polypropylene, the TPU, and PA each has a different absorption curve that the 3DM lasers can be tailored to.

“Based on the data we can decide if we want to aim for the peaks or we can aim for areas that will work best on that material, whereas the CO2 is only limited to the same specific wavelength, and it means that you have to use that same frequency for every material,” Ido points out. “This greater precision allows us to produce stronger, more isotropic parts, with higher resolution, at comparable or better costs.”

QCL frequencies are adaptable to every material, with 3DM's beamhead promising faster, higher quality parts in laser-based polymer PBF
The beamheads are installed into 3D printers such as these test systems that are located inside the 3DM facility,
Research 2022
Polymer AM Market Opportunities and Trends

741 unique polymer AM companies individually surveyed and studied. Core polymer AM market generated $4.6 billion...

Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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