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Vader Systems creates liquid metal 3D printer for manufacturing

16 January 2017

A father and son team in the START-UP NY program have invented a liquid metal printing machine that could represent a significant transformation in manufacturing.

Parts printed from Vaders Systems liquid metal 3D printer. (Credit: Douglas Levere)

A breakthrough idea five years ago by former University of Buffalo student Zack Vader, then 19, created a machine that prints three-dimensional objects using liquid metal. Vader Systems is innovating and building the machines in a factory in the CrossPoint Business Park in Getzville. Zack's father Scott, a mechanical engineer, is the CEO. Zack is the chief technology officer. His mother, Pat Roche, is controller.

The machine is so novel it represents a quantum leap in the ability to print three-dimensional objects in metal. Other metal printers exist, but most use a process of laying down powered metal and melting it with a laser or electron beam. In that process, some particles of the powder do not get melted, creating weakened spots.

Manufacturers are very interested in the Vader machine, with one automotive parts maker expressing an interest in eventually buying at least 50 of them. A printer with multiple nozzles could cost more than $1 million. 

Zack Vader, now 24, started focusing on metal printing when his plans to hire a company to 3D print parts for a microturbine generator were stymied. No company could print the parts he needed, so he decided to make his own metal printer. His breakthrough came when he thought to expose molten metal in a confined chamber with an orifice to a pulsed magnetic field. The transient field induces a pressure with the metal that ejects a droplet. That was the key to making droplets of liquid metal eject from a nozzle.

Professor Edward P. Furlani, PhD, in UB's Chemical and Biological Engineering and Electrical Engineering departments, said that Vader's process mimics drop-on-demand inkjet printing and is based on the principles of magnetohydrodynamics, i.e. the manipulation of conductive fluids using a magnetic field. In Vader's device, an electrically-pulsed magnetic field permeates liquid metal in an ejection chamber and creates circulating electrical currents that interact with the magnetic field to produce a pressure that squeezes a droplet out of the ejector nozzle.

"It's a transformative technology," Furlani said. "It's very exciting interdisciplinary engineering. I think its application base will continue to broaden and expand for the foreseeable future."

Ciprian N. Ionita, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department foresees the Vader Systems printer ultimately printing out custom stents and other surgical devices right in the hospital.

"This is a game changer," he said. The metal powder used in the current metal printing processes is a contaminant that is difficult to clean up and can be toxic inside the body.

The Vader printer also will be valuable making custom knee and hip replacements, he said.

Steel printing on the horizon on a Vader machine, a strand of aluminium is fed into a heat element that melts it at 750°C. The liquefied metal is then passed to a ceramic tube that forms an ejection chamber and has a submillimetre orifice. A magnetic coil surrounds the tube and receives a short-lived electrical pulse to create a pressure within the tube that ejects a droplet of liquid metal through the orifice. The ejected drop is projected downward onto a heated platform that manoeuvres to create solid 3D shapes based on layer-by-layer deposition and the coalescence of the droplets. Zack Vader said plans are to modify the device, adding nozzles to make it faster. Eventually the machines will be able to melt and print steel at 1,400°C.

As the machine evolves, the Vaders plan to expand their operation into an assembly line manufacturing facility. Applications for the device run the gamut. Scott Vader said the automotive industry may be interested in making parts that are now solid metal into hollow and honey-combed structures. The hollow parts would be lighter, stronger and much cheaper.

Video courtesy of University of Buffalo

Information courtesy of ScienceDaily, the original article written by Grove Potter.


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