A while ago GE announced its’ surprising entry into the binder jetting market. GE was already active in two metal 3D printing technologies Laser Powder Bed Fusion and Electron Powder Bed Fusion. Both these technologies use an energy source to selectively heat grains of powder in a sealed chamber. PBF based technologies produce dense, accurate parts that are being used in aerospace, implants, dental and other demanding applications. PBF technologies are far from perfect. The initial investment is high (around $1.5m if you want to do manufacturing) and requires an industrial gas installation and sophisticated resources, employees and knowledge. It may take a company a year to coherently manufacture parts with Powder Bed Fusion for metals. But, once they do they can reliably make tens of thousands of parts in a predictable way with these technologies. Arcam’s EPBF is being used at GE Additive to make turbine blades and orthopedic implants while the Concept Laser/In house derived LPBF is being used for all manner of aerospace and industrial parts.
A much lower cost, much lower barrier to adoption technology was dominating the headlines however: Binder Jetting for metals. HP, Desktop Metal, Markforged, and others were steaming ahead with this technology. The headlines were in favor of binder jetting which was being touted as the technology that would bring inexpensive manufacturing in metal 3D printing to thousands of firms. With much lower investments and quicker adoption, this easier cheaper technology would produce parts for mere cents that could go into cars and relatively inexpensive goods.
I’m personally very skeptical about binder jetting metals. I know if enough people and more importantly enough VC money believe that you will make it then you may make it. But, 3D printing is not a filter for your selfies. In binder jetting a layer of fine (less costly than PBF) powder is jetted together via a binder, the part is then sintered. Essentially a lot of the process is very similar to the MIM (metal injection molding) business. And there they have traditionally had many problems with the sintering step. In sintering, results can vary enormously depending on wall thickness, part size and geometry. Studying initial binder jet metal parts made me only more skeptical. At the same time, existing firms such as ExOne and Voxeljet had been doing the same thing for years making millions of binder jetted metal parts albeit without the marketing pizazz.
When I heard that GE had made its own binder jetting 3D printer in a number of months I found it a surprising but very logical move. Now with the firm getting some traction I’m curious to see where they’re headed with this. I sat down with Jake Brunsberg who is leading GE’s binder jetting initiative to find out more about the technology.
What is the status of binder jetting at GE?
We have a beta machine at the moment. We hope to release it widely in 2021. At the moment we’re working with key partners to understand the needs of the manufacturing industry. We’re working with partners inside GE to learn what their requirements are to manufacture metal parts with binder jetting. With both Cummins and Wabtech we’re looking at what our partners need to manufacture at an industrial scale in automotive and transport.
How does binder jetting fit in with your other technologies?
Our binder jetting solution is suited for high volume low-cost parts. With binder jetting you may not be able to do everything that you can with Electron Beam Melting or Direct Metal Laser Melting but you do have high throughput and much lower costs.
How do you hope to position the technology?
For binder jetting, we’re really looking at other types of components such as power train components. For some of these parts, we believe that our binder jetting solution can produce cost competitive parts. Ontop of that we hope to see further gains as we help our customers design for additive. If we can then help them design for Additive, part consolidation, conformal cooling and weight saving will improve them further still. We’re really looking to help the customer add value to the parts. We are aiming for positive ROI as opposed to traditional manufacturing technologies with which we’d like to compete at volume.
We’re also aiming to make larger components. Basketball size parts. We’ve worked for a long time on the technology side of the material space. This lets us make large parts suitable for serious manufacturing.
We’re looking at industrial firms, automotive firms and the MIM industry as customers. We also have made binder jet parts capable of aerospace applications. For volume we’re of course looking at cars and industrial but throughout our own businesses we have a lot of business units that are really interested such as our aero and power businesses.
We see binder jetting as being a very synergistic technology. Orthopedic implants for example could be made with Arcam EBM, and you’d never use binder jetting for that application. However, you could 3D Print the surgical tools that are used in that operation with binder jetting.
What is different about your approach?
We are looking at the full process. Outcomes are really dependent on all of the steps in the process. By looking at all of the steps and using our experience in industrializing manufacturing for many technologies we’re developing one solution. This is a whole factory solution. We aim to let our customers make meaningful parts. Meaningful parts with repeatability.
In order to do this we’re looking at predictive analytics, we’re looking at distortion, we’re looking at the sinter cycle. Our approach is very integral. Through software, we’re able to predict the final shape. Without this ability, it would never get out of the lab. And we want to be out of the lab, on the factory floor.
Do you feel that you’re looking at binder jetting differently than others?
A full process solution is our real focus. Production parts with the right design considerations taken into account. Things like predistortion compensation will let us roll out this technology at an industrial scale. We are geared towards industrializing technologies. We look at the total cost per part and take into account full business ROI including things such as inventory management and aftermarket support. We look at true TCO because this matters to us.
What materials are you looking at?
We’re experimenting with a broad range of materials. We’re mostly looking at heavy steels such as 17-4 and 316. Any kind of sinterable steel is of interest to us. We’re also looking at nickel superalloys for aviation applications. We’re testing parts such as high temperature brackets for example instead of using casting.
Steel is one of the most popular materials worldwide and this is where our focus is now with the second generation binder jetting machine.
You hope to launch in 2021?
Yes, we hope to launch then but first, we want a full factory line in place so we can validate the technology. We want to be a production solution and we want customers to be able to see that.