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Intelligent Layering: A new additive manufacturing technique that competes with CNC machining to deliver precision parts

Cutting tool meets Metal Injection Molding (MIM), meets Binder Jetting. A love triangle begins.

To this day additive manufacturing has a long way to go before it will meet the scalability of more traditional machining processes. That’s why you see companies like Carbon3D digging into extreme customization like they are doing for Riddell football helmets. Each helmet is specified to the athlete, designed, prototyped, and manufactured just one time.

Which is incredible. But for most applications and especially for machine parts, manufacturers require much more scalability. They need to reproduce the exact same part, flawlessly with the greatest efficiency possible.

Now there is an additive/CNC hybrid process that emphasizes precision and scalability both.

What is Intelligent Layering?

Intelligent layering uses the strengths of subtractive and additive manufacturing that creates high-precision parts at scale. The process begins by reimagining MIM but with the power of CNC. A powdered metal is spread across the build area; then a binder application adheres the powder. So far we are talking about binder jetting, which is nothing new. But then a cutting tool finishes the exterior of the layer to achieve a superior surface quality before the next layer is applied. Layer by layer, the additive/subtractive machine builds the part without a mold. Once complete, the manufacturer sinters the part to fully bind the metal to its full strength.

Solved! Tolerance, surface, and yield

Metal additive manufacturing has three big problems that have historically made it a poor competitor to subtractive processes. Here’s a snapshot of the biggest differences.

Additive problems
  • Yield can be as low as 20%
  • Surface quality is poor
  • Prototypes are exceptional but quality reduces significantly at scale
Intelligent Layering
  • Like traditional metal injection molding techniques (~99.7%)
  • Tolerances of +/- 0.002 inches (+/- 50 microns) with even better tolerance projected in next gen machines
  • High surface quality
  • No quality difference between prototypes and mass-produced parts

OK, so far we’ve looked at how Intelligent Layering solves additive’s biggest problems, but we haven’t discussed what makes it better than MIM.

The biggest problem with MIM has been its reliance on molding. Designing, sourcing and machining a mold takes a lot of time before you even start production. Prototypes and custom tools are extremely expensive. Although exceptionally efficient and precise at scale, MIM has floundered on smaller jobs where additive processes are thriving.

The additive process behind Intelligent Layering subverts the need for mold-creation, improving time-to-delivery and significantly improving cost for small-to-medium batches, solving MIM’s biggest problem. The additive process of Intelligent Layering ensures that parts can be prototyped and manufactured in small batches easily while still achieving economies of scale.

This makes patent-holder 3DEO a company to watch. Early in 2019 they announced production of 12 intelligent layering machines to more than double their previous manufacturing capacity. That kind of growth implies more than a theoretical advantage.

Does the Cicada Kill Her Spouse, or Will Intelligent Layering Augment CNC Machining?

Even though 3DEO’s technology uses subtractive processes, it could still ultimately disrupt machine shop floors everywhere, theoretically. However, this technology serves and even opens up a niche of its own. It is ideal for small to mid-sized batches. That’s why gun enthusiasts are excited about the opportunity to develop custom ammunition with 3DEO. Larger companies require more time to develop new products and launch. But with lower ramp-up cost for highly precise, custom jobs, Intelligent Layering is in a category all on its own. Its highest value will be in new products, not in stealing production from old ones.

For example, intelligent layering can use tungsten carbide as a raw material, which means it could be used to create cutting tools. But why would you create old tools that are already being created, when the technology makes it easy to create a new line of highly customized cutting tools?

In 2019, 3DEO is a relatively small company. Twelve more machines will bring them to 20 total. This makes it impossible to make big splashes in the near term. On the other hand, they don’t need to scale too quickly. The patent underlying Intelligent Layering expires in the year 2037, giving them 17 years to perfect the technology.

Other mass metal additive manufacturers also have potential. GE Additive is expanding, as is TRIDITIVE. Both these firms have larger businesses than 3DEO, so as an industry metal additive manufacturing could quickly become a competitor.

But it might be more worthwhile to call them influencers. What is so interesting about Intelligent Layering is its recombination of existing technologies to solve the weaknesses of each. We see this in metal alloys as well. But does the success of an alloy mean we should worry about any of the ores in its composition?

Maybe the marriage of additive and subtractive will actually be of value to everyone? Imagine being able to customize a cutting tool when you can’t find one that meets your needs. How many more products could you create?

In the meantime, MachiningCloud will consider adding metal jet fixtures to its digital library of cutting tools. If this love triangle is as fruitful as it promises to be, there will soon be machinists who will source additive and subtractive tools within the same build project. It’s kind of awe-inspiring actually… Sort of like eating Golden Grahams and Cookie Crisp out of the same bowl… Definitely worth a try.

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