By late 2016, the joint team had strong enough results to suggest that an internally-developed solution focused on 3D printing stainless steel could achieve the quality and efficiencies required for a production manufacturing solution. The team pitched the idea to senior company leadership and quickly received the go ahead to make it happen.
Engineers from the research and business arms now focused on their own areas of specialization. While the print team worked to develop an entirely new printer with the speed and economy they needed, HP Labs researchers delved deeper into the physics and chemistry of the metal print methodology known as Metal Jet technology.
This is a two-step process. First a “green body” is printed in a combination of metal particles and a “liquid functional agent” that binds the particles together. The green body is then put through a set of thermal processes that results in a single metal piece.
While the approach of using a green part with a binder isn’t new, the team has developed several novel techniques that are aimed to overcome traditional issues and suggest a trajectory for dramatically improving quality and efficiency of the metal binder jet approach.
“Although there’s lots to still address, we’re very excited about the work,” says Zhao. “The preliminary results from our research have demonstrated a new approach to solving some of the fundamental challenges in metals.”
Her expert team – which includes applied physicists, a metallurgist, a materials scientist, and a chemist – continues to coordinate research with the 3D Printing group sharing results and learnings from their own experimental work and that of other research institutions to help the 3D metal printing group continue to advance HP’s metal technology.
At the same time, they remain engaged in longer-term 3D printing research.
Current investigations include an effort to digitally manipulate properties of printed metal parts at the voxel level - a feat HP has already achieved with other printed materials.
“We are also looking at broadening our capabilities to print metals other than stainless steel,” Zhao says. “There’s a lot more to be done before we can say we’ve fully met the grand challenge of metal 3D printing overall.”