Dr Kate Black from the University of Liverpool and CTO and Founder of spin-out Meta Additive Ltd, explains how mass manufacture of multi-materials using a new binder jet printing technology can create smarter solutions at the scale required to tackle many of the major challenges faced.
Additive manufacturing is often heralded by the media as a revolutionary technology with the potential to disrupt conventional manufacturing. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that for a number of applications additive manufacturing can be faster, less materials-intensive and reduce the time to market than traditional subtractive manufacturing methods.
But to be truly transformative for industry, companies need to utilise additive manufacturing to create big, complex, multi material components and products with greater functionality than are currently available. At present, development of new materials presents the biggest challenge to improving functionality, but it also presents a huge opportunity to drive forward additive manufacturing innovation.
To fully achieve this vision, a new approach to processing materials in additive manufacturing is required. The careful tailoring and manipulation of materials at the molecular level presents an opportunity to deliver a step-change in additive manufacturing. At the University of Liverpool, this is being realised through the development of a novel, sinter-free manufacturing method for jetting processes of metal and ceramic materials.
To harness the transformative potential of additive manufacturing, industry needs to:
- Broaden the pallet of starting materials and accelerate the transition of innovative materials from research laboratories into additive manufacturing factories.
- Develop industrial-grade additive manufacturing equipment with multi-tool heads, so that a range of innovative materials can be directly printed in one build operation.
- Create complex 3D structures with embedded smart functionality, such as direct printing of novel materials for integrated electronic components.
- Monitor processes in-situ to enable investigation and better control of additive manufacturing processes.
- Develop support systems, such as software and machine learning platforms, to enable printing of multi-materials and facilitate additive manufacturing’s true potential.
Cutting-edge additive manufacturing research
Researchers at the University of Liverpool are developing a new class of ink formulations, known as Reactive Organometallic (ROM) inks, to accelerate the development of additive manufacturing using new materials. ROM inks provide a novel additive manufacturing method for the deposition of metal and ceramic films for printed electronics, sensors, photovoltaic devices and security features.
Originally developed for atomic layer deposition, ROM inks exploit surface chemistry processes and materials. As they are sinter-free, these inks have lower thermal budgets, shorter processing times and superior physical properties when compared to conventional inks. ROM inks provide the significant advantage of broadening the pallet of available materials, which can be processed by jetting techniques. They also enable material control at the molecular level, facilitating the printing of complex alloys and graded materials in one print.
The university’s research into ROM formulations began by investigating their use for silver to print collector grids for solar cells and has expanded the range of printed materials to include copper, aluminium, palladium and a variety of metal oxides such as titanium dioxide. These materials can be printed on thermally substrates, such as plastics and paper, thereby broadening their application use.
Underpinned by previous innovations, the additive manufacturing research team at Liverpool utilise ROM inks in combination with particles and powder beds to print 3D structures. Crucially for industry, this novel system is capable of printing embedded sensors and electronics within components.
From the lab to the factory
Through the formation of the spin-out company Meta Additive in 2019, research into ROM formulations for 3D printing is now being taken out of the University of Liverpool’s research laboratories and into the world of manufacturing. Headquartered in Stoke-on-Trent, Meta Additive brings a scientific approach to the additive manufacturing industry. Meta Additive’s team collaborates with manufacturers, academics, engineers and creatives to drive forward innovation.
Meta Additive has invented and patented a new additive manufacturing process which takes the benefits of standard binder jet printing and enhances it for mass manufacturing applications. It is speeding up the existing process of creating metal and ceramic parts through binder-jetting, while offering greater material choice, and producing improved material properties such as higher density, less shrinkage and finer feature definition.
In November 2020, Meta Additive was awarded the lead partner role in a £1.2m Innovate UK SMART grant to work in collaboration with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, EpiValence, and Xaar. This 24-month project is focused on developing new functional binder formulations with high solid metal loadings using EpiValence raw materials to achieve multimaterial metal and ceramic 3D-printing (MC3DP). Interest in additive manufacturing across the medical, dental, oil and gas, automotive and aerospace sectors is on the rise, with many companies investigating the efficacy of the process for their products. Currently, high costs of consumables, build material and industrial-grade printers significantly impede the growth of the market and need to be addressed.
A further challenge faced by all current additive manufacturing processes is their inability to print multi-materials in one process, limiting the range of applications. Meta Additive’s disruptive technology for MC3DP offers solutions to all these problems.
New technologies and innovative thinking
Meta Additive aspires to develop advanced manufacturing technologies that will extend 3D printing to a 4D future. By collaborating with manufacturers and innovators, Meta Additive aims to create an additive manufacturing ecosystem of the future that will deliver smarter, multi-material solutions at the scale needed to tackle the toughest manufacturing challenges faced by society.