voxeljet: Is the Future 3D Printed?

I recently spoke to Ingo Ederer the CEO of voxeljet who presented at the recent IMI Industrial Inkjet Technology Showcase. voxeljet is Europe’s leading industrial 3D Print manufacturing company and has generated considerable success now becoming a global organisation with businesses in the UK and US.

.There is no doubt that the profile of 3D Printing is very significant developing technology that is being used within industrial manufacturing. However, to the wider world, attention seems to be focused more as a consumer technology because the hype surrounding it has been truly amazing.

I asked Ingo a few questions relating to the development of 3D printing and his view of the future.

Given the huge hype surrounding 3D printing, its adoption as a consumer technology has been disappointing. Why do you think this is so?

 “The challenge for consumer 3D printing is that there is no obvious application, plus the level of technical competence to run the technology is considerable and both of these factors have limited adoption. However I think they hype has largely levelled out and I would expect to see bureaus continue to grow to 3D print directly for consumers, similar to the traditional print company model. However as a consumer technology its use will continue to be limited. 
The question is what is coming next? Applications are driven by available materials and currently these are high grade and high cost. We saw what I believe to be a similar trend with photographic printing. It was thought that everybody would be printing off out photos at home but this just didn’t happen due to the cost and relative level of expertise required to do so. The same is true of 3D Printing, even more so to some extent.”

But consumer 3D printing is really not what voxeljet is about. This company is a leader in the field of industrial additive manufacturing with inkjet as the core technology.

So please tell me more about voxeljet?

“Our business was established back in 1999 as I had the good fortune to study at the Technical University of Munich under Dr Joachim Heinz who was responsible for a lot of development work for drop on demand inkjet. voxeljet was established from my time at the University and it has the goal of developing new generative processes for the production of casting and plastics components using 3D printing. In the beginning, there were four employees at the Technical University of Munich.”.

So is industrial inkjet important to voxeljet?

“Absolutely, it is integral. Our business is focused around this core technology as opposed to some of the other 3D Printing processes. This means we are limited to a binder process and this is the best suited process for the applications that we focus on and it also provides the biggest volumes in terms of speed. 

Of course there are limitations. For instance, if someone wants to create metal shapes used within the construction of a car then inkjet based 3D printing is not the correct process. However for creating moulds for castings it is perfect. A large part of the application within automotive and aerospace is about 3D printing moulds that are utilised within a foundry to make metal castings. The moulds that are inkjet 3D printed are very effective as it can produce shapes not possible with conventional cast making. For 3D printing there are very few limitations for casting so it creates some amazing objects that standard casting cannot make. It removes design restrictions, saving costs, tools and patents and a lot of time saving because you don’t have to wait a long time for the cast to be made using traditional methods which improves production time and speed of response.”

So it seems that the automotive industry is a key business segment for voxeljet?

“Yes it is. All of the major car manufacturers utilise our technology in one way or another either through investing in the technology and operating it themselves or via our in house printing service. Our business model is organised in two ways: We sell voxeljet technology for prototyping and industrial production directly to manufacturers and we provide a service whereby we operate and create 3D printed parts to order for customers within a 1000 km radius of our base in Friedberg, which is located close to Munich.”

So you have some key automotive manufacturers as customers, how difficult was it to gain new business from this sector?

“Actually we were able to make progress quite quickly. Automotive has extremely high pressure on innovation and they quickly understood the potential in a number of ways. And now we are experiencing similar things in the aerospace sector. 

One of the key drivers is that there is an advantage against cheap manufacturing. The trend towards individualisation and smaller and lighter vehicles meaning that 3D printing has a significant role to play as it can provide advantage for both efficiency and creativity.”

So what about the future, what are the future technical challenges?

“Currently we use a core technology (inkjet) that was developed with paper printing in mind. What we really want is to be able to 3D print industrial grade materials through the print heads. In contrast to print heads designed for image reproduction, we do not require 600 dpi and 20 picolitre performance. For 3D, 300 dpi is enough. What is more important is the capability to jet viscose materials through the head that a standard print head would not like because it has not been designed to do this. Higher viscosity materials are important and we are interested to hear of new inkjet head development that can cope with tougher materials.”

Will we be able to inkjet materials like carbon fibre and graphene one day?  

“The stronger the material, the more possibilities there are. Currently it is not possible to 3D inkjet graphene but if you could, one could control the complete structure making the part very light and very strong so it could be a significant step forward. However a considerable amount of work and collaboration needs to take place before this is realised. But in terms of technological development it is dangerous to say that anything is impossible! We encourage and applaud any work that is being done to improve the material strength utilising inkjet and look forward to continuing to lead and develop this work whilst being very interested to hear of any new developments in the field.”

Ingo will be speaking at the InPrint Show in Munich.

For more information on the Conference Programme at InPrint go to http://www.inprintshow.com/english/inprint/conferences-2015/