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MIT’s Liquid Metal Printing Breakthrough

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In the landscape of the acceleration of future technology in the manufacturing industry, MIT researchers have revolutionised metal additive manufacturing with the liquid metal printing (LMP) technique. This cutting-edge digital technology rapidly produces large-scale components such as table legs and chair frames in minutes.

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Unlike traditional methods, LMP deposits molten aluminium along a predefined path into a bed of tiny glass beads, quickly hardening a 3D structure. This innovation is at least ten times faster than comparable metal additive manufacturing processes, offering increased efficiency in heating and melting the metal.

While LMP sacrifices resolution for speed and scale, it excels in applications where extremely fine details, such as architecture, construction, and industrial design, are not critical. The process is also ideal for rapid prototyping with recycled or scrap metal. In a study, researchers demonstrated LMP by printing aluminium frames and parts for tables and chairs strong enough to withstand post-print machining. The components made with LMP can be combined with high-resolution processes and additional materials to create functional furniture.

Skylar Tibbits, associate professor in the Department of Architecture, highlighted the transformative nature of LMP in metal manufacturing. “This is a completely different direction in how we think about metal manufacturing with some huge advantages. It has downsides, too. But most of our built world. It doesn’t need extremely high resolution. Speed, scale, repeatability, and energy consumption are all important metrics,” he explained.

LMP surpasses common metal printing techniques like wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM) by keeping the material molten throughout the process, avoiding structural issues caused by remelting. The researchers designed a specialised machine that melts aluminium, holds the molten metal, and deposits it at high speeds through a nozzle. The large-scale parts can be printed in seconds, with the molten aluminium cooling in just a few minutes.

Despite the high process rate, the researchers acknowledge the difficulty in controlling it. Zain Karsan, lead author and PhD student at ETH Zurich, compared it to opening a faucet, stating, “Our process rate is high, but it is also very difficult to control. It is more or less like opening a faucet. That enables us to print these geometries very quickly.”

The choice of aluminium, a commonly used construction material that can be recycled efficiently, adds practicality to the process. The team experimented with various materials to fill the print bed and settled on 100-micron glass beads, acting as a neutral suspension for the molten metal to cool quickly.

To enhance the LMP process, researchers developed a numerical model to estimate the material deposition into the print bed. The machine’s iteration aims to achieve consistent heating in the nozzle to prevent material from sticking and improve control over the flow of molten material. The ultimate goal is to make the machine reliable enough for melting down recycled aluminium and printing parts, potentially revolutionising metal manufacturing.

Jaye Buchbinder, leading business development for furniture company Emeco, expresses enthusiasm for LMP’s potential impact, stating, “The liquid metal printing walks the line in terms of ability to produce metal parts in custom geometries while maintaining quick turnaround that you don’t normally get in other printing or forming technologies. There is potential for the technology to revolutionise how metal printing and metal forming are currently handled.”

As MIT researchers continue refining the LMP process, the digital technology’s ability to seamlessly blend speed, scale, and efficiency may reshape the landscape of metal manufacturing. In the future, this innovation holds the promise of revolutionising traditional methods, offering unprecedented advancements in precision and productivity. The ongoing development of the LMP process signifies a transformative era for metal manufacturing, where digital technologies play a central role in driving unprecedented progress.


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