The Vader printer, created by father-and-son team Scott and Zachary Vader, is an ambitious undertaking and a shot across the bow in 3D metal printing manufacturing.
This printer fires droplets of liquid, molten metal to fabricate solid metal objects, and the inspiration for the machine came from a 1997 University of Texas at Arlington research paper which postulated Liquid Metal Jet Printing.
The Vader project is six months into development and the pair hope to have a fully-functioning printer complete by the end of October.
Aimed at printing with molten metals like aluminum and copper, their prototype machine debuted at Maker Faire in New York City, but it's pretty likely you won't have one on your desktop any time soon. The initial versions of their breakthrough machine, the Mark 1, are aimed at a sales price point of between $20,000 and $100,000.
"We see our potential market being light industrial, low volume manufacturing engineering firms, and anyone that needs to make complex or custom parts," said Zachary Vader. "The motorsport world will probably love us."
After spending about a year studying mechanical engineering, Zachary says he dropped out of school to pursue his own business.
"I quickly came to the realization that my ideas could not be made with conventional manufacturing, and if they were, they'd be too expensive for anyone to use them," Vader said. "This lead me to metal printing and I began to learn all I could."
Vader says that investigation into the technology left him facing a series of problems. As anyone associated with Additive Manufacturing knows, metal printing machines are expensive and often not efficient for making functional parts when compared to methods like casting.
So the younger Vader, with the aid of his father, began comparing all the current metal printing technologies. Scott Vader, taking advantage of his mechanical engineering and work in manufacturing plants for the last 30 years, chipped in and helped his son conclude that current metal printing machines weren't likely candidates to become mass production machines.
So they decided to design their own from scratch.
Working out of their basement in Buffalo, NY, the pair set to the task, and what they came up with might be a watershed moment in small-shop manufacturing technology.
"The process is called Liquid Metal Jet Printing or LMJP," Zachary said. "The basic theory is that you melt down a metal – in our case aluminum – then you propel that molten metal in small droplets at speeds around 1kHz to 10kHz, similar to an inkjet printer. The other metal technology that's most commonly used is the fusing of metal powder with either lasers or electron beams. The reason we're not working on those technologies is because the directed energy beams, the lasers and the power supply are very expensive. This limits how many you can have and therefore limits your potential for high throughput rate."
Once they arrived at a methodology, it was time to take on the Devil in the Details.
Vader says the resolution of their machine is dependent on the nozzle size, and for their first prototype, a 400 micron nozzle is being used. Vader says the commercial version of the Mark 1 will use a 50 micron nozzle.
The 21 year old grew up doing "a whole lot of tinkering" as a native of Canada. The family lived in Toronto, Ontario until Zachary was 15 when the clan moved to Buffalo following his father's job.
Inspired by work being done by Starjet at the University of Frieburg and Swiss Federal Lab MHD, Vader says he first saw 3D printing technology at work at his high school. The printer was a Stratasys Dimension.
"The coolest thing I've printed was a model plane I made at the Detroit Makers Faire," Vader said. "The cool thing about it was that I made it in about 5 minutes with Solidworks and then printed it right there in front of people. It was cool to be able to show off the power of the tools. My vision of the future is giving everyone the ability to quickly and cheaply make anything, and really advance the rate of development of technologies. Also, I'd like to eliminate the risk factor behind far reaching ideas, and give people the ability to do iterative development of products hundreds of times to get it right. That's all made possible with this technology."
His vision of the future includes a prediction that within five years, metal printing for the home will be "very likely" and with a price similar to the cost of today's plastic printers. Vader also sees the development of "massive, industrial scale metal printers that print in tens of liters per hour, unlike now, where printers throughput is measured in milliliters per hour."
And if he could have one material available now to print with?
"For me, it would obviously be steel," Vader said. "If you can print steel, it really changes what you're able to do and what the world looks like. I can't even imagine the doors that would open."
And Vader hopes he'll be on the front line of realizing that vision of the industrial future.
"Within 6 months we should be building the first few commercial machines," he said. "In the next two years, we should be making – or well on our way to making – heavy industrial high volume machines."