Metalysis’ Dion Vaughan talks 3D printing

Materials World magazine
2 Mar 2016

Metalysis has secured £20m to bring its proof-of-concept metallic powder plant to nameplate capacity of 20 tonnes per annum. CEO Dr Dion Vaughan talked to James Perkins about the technology and its role in 3D printing, plus what the funding means for the company.

How will the new funding from Woodford Patient Capital Trust and Iluka Resources, which now has a 28.8% interest in Metalysis, affect the company?

The plan is twofold. We are largely investing in upgrading our industrial plant to its full nameplate capacity. The plant, at industrial scale, builds heavily on the FFC ‘lightbulb moment’ from the University of Cambridge. We produce metal powders with a focus on 3D printing. Within that spectrum, we have two materials and their alloys – titanium, which is a mass-market opportunity, and tantulum. The investment will allow us to bring the plant up to production of 20-odd tonnes per annum by the end of the year. We are going to be investing more in people and technology development, and this will see us through to the next stage of our commercial development. 

What is that next stage?

We are planning to take our story forward hand-in-hand with our customers. We have got some great public projects with GKN and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty and we are working with others behind the scenes at the moment, but we expect to make some big announcements in 2016-17. We have a commercial demonstrator in Wath-upon-Dearne, UK, and we want to build more and bigger plants focused on producing consumables for 3D printing. This extra funding will allow us to not only get more great people on board but also invest in them.

When you are at full capacity, does that mean you are out of the start-up phase?

It is important to note the principal focus of the sales of material from our demonstrator activity is really for people who want to build their own plant. We are selling very little into the spot market at this stage. There are some customers for tantalum – in particular for 3D-printed materials – that we have invested in indirectly as part of supply agreements because the volumes are very small. For titanium, the output is largely focused on the end users that want to buy the full kit. 

Our business model and strategy is to monetise our intellectual property through licenses, joint ventures and other kinds of partnerships that may require investments by ourselves in those activities - having a plant working at scale is a key thing for their engineers to see.

Why is your method of producing metal powder better than existing processes?

We have developed the FFC Cambridge Process working with Professor Derek Fray and the University of Sheffield over the last few years. What we now have at industrial scale is a plant that can produce powders from powder feedstocks – powder in, metal powder out. That powder is lower-cost than those made with conventional approaches, has a lower environmental impact and it can also be recycled back through our process, which is attractive for those with a focus on 3D printing. We believe that our process produces a product with at least 50% lower energy cost than existing approaches.

How does the process work?

In simple terms, the lightbulb moment from the University of Cambridge was to identify that if you put metal oxides into a calcium chloride bath, make that material as part of a cathode, then pass a current through the molten salt to the anode, the oxygen is transported from the cathode and it is discharged at the anode as a gas. It is intrinsically more efficient, as you are collapsing a huge number of processing steps in order to make a powder. Conventional approaches tend to focus on making cheap titanium, then they focus on making it into a cheap powder. What we do is take a cheap feedstock, which is not a metal, and turn that powder directly into a metal powder. We have focused Metalysis over the past few years on titanium and tantulum, but if you look at the potential of FFC you will see that people have looked at about 41 different elements and their alloy combinations so our process is potentially truly disruptive – it could work right across the periodic table. There is a horses for courses approach in terms of applicability, but we potentially see interest in our story for our company, not only in titanium and tantalum, but in platinum group metals and eventually rare earths and other forms of light alloy. 

Is the excitement about 3D printing still building?

There is a lot of potential. There is more going on behind the scenes than there is in the public domain because people are cautious about using 3D-printed parts in structural or semi-structural applications. Nonetheless, there is a huge interest, not only in 3D printing technology, but the provision of the ink to the printer. The story has more legs than prototyping. It is a key enabler of the factory of the future. 

Spotlight products:

1. The 3D microprinting technology FluidFM has been enhanced for commercial use, with ETH Zürich spin-off Cytosurge, Switzerland, developing a dedicated product line expected to benefit the semiconductor industry, watchmaking and the medical device sector. FluidFM was developed at the university in 2009 to enable precise microprinting without the need for multiple production steps, as well as being able to detect which areas of an object have already been printed. Central to the system is a moveable micropipette mounted on a leaf spring, allowing for precise control over the deposition of materials. Using copper sulphate as an example, a chemical reaction is induced to the sulphate exiting the pipette, forming solid copper on the base plate that grows following the movement of the pipette. Tomaso Zambelli, Associate Lecturer at ETH Zürich, stated that ‘this method can be used to print not only copper but also other metals. FluidFM may even be suitable for 3D printing with polymers and composite materials.’

2. Additive manufacturing powder specialist LPW Technology, UK, has launched POWDERFLOW, a powder flow measuring kit to aid users in characterising the flow of powder in metal powder 3D printing including Apparent Density ASTM B212, Angle of Repose, Hall Flow ASTM B213 and Carney Flow ASTM B964. Commercial Director Phil Kilburn commented, ‘LPW has produced this comprehensive kit to enable its customers to monitor the health of the powder they are using in their additive manufacturing processes quickly, simply and cost effectively. I’m sure all users of metal powders will find the POWDERFLOW kit a useful addition to their testing regime.’ LPW Technology will also be opening a new centre in Germany to support their customer base in Germany and Switzerland ‘in the near future.’

3. Switzerland-based Sintratec has released its first selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printer kit, the Sintratec Kit, following a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The Kit is available for €4,999 – far below the average price of SLS industrial systems. The Kit prints with PA12 nylon, and has a build volume of 11 x 11 x 11cm with 100–150 μm thickness. Four days are recommended for assembly, although the record for fastest assembly is two minutes. Sintratec guarantee shipping to Germany and Switzerland, and available on request across the world.