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ProMetal Advances Hardware, Glass, 3D Printers

You would be hard-pressed to find another company in the additive manufacturing business that has had as many advances in the past year or so than Pennsylvania-based ProMetal.  First, it debuted a line of decorative metal-based hardware and art, as sold by their Metaltec Innovations division.  Then, it optimized a pioneering glass-based process that is just a couple of weeks from commercial roll-out.  Finally, it developed a new 3D printer that, due to its size and speed, instantly makes obsolete their existing line of printers. 

Yet, due to newness of the technology and the confusing array of market opportunities it creates, ProMetal still seems to be groping its way down a dark hallway, trying doors, and finding some of them locked.

Consumer Hardware

When ProMetal debuted their Metaltec hardware division a year and a half ago, the market seemed promising.  No one else was offering standard and custom metal 3D printed door pulls, knobs, and knockers for the consumer market. 

However, a rotten economy combined with questionable channel choices (online & tradeshows mostly) led to a moribund business.  "We had a false start," says ProMetal General Manager Bob Wood.  "Without knowing the market, we thought we could sell directly.  But the high end market is almost all sold through showrooms.  People have to feel it, touch it, and handle it." 

"We are accustomed to selling technology, not end consumer products," continues Wood.  "We had to develop things like customer service and packaging."

Today, ProMetal is pressing the restart button.  The company just recruited a manufacturers rep that will introduce their products to retailers on the U.S. southeastern seaboard over the next 2-3 months.  If the strategy is successful, distribution will be expanded. 

Beyond the tactile needs of consumers, ProMetal has also had to learn to meet other expectations.  By way of explanation, Wood describes a scenario where a customer wants to add their initials to a custom door pull.  Wood says this personalization takes just seconds in CAD, but that it is important to charge a "nominal fee" for it.  "You can't give stuff like that away," he says.  "It lessens the perceived value of the product."

Other lessons for ProMetal revolve around strategies for keeping its products affordable.  Since many house hardware designers don't use 3D modeling tools, ProMetal often has to model a custom part before it can print it.  "[With additive fabrication] you don't need special tooling [like you do in casting], but the 3D model is the special tooling," Wood says. 

To cut costs, ProMetal uses lower-cost overseas engineering help, then utilizes 3-4 in-house designers to finalize it.  "I've had experience with off-shoring so my expectations were lower than a lot of people's," remarks Wood.  "I expected 70-80% of what I needed.  It has met my expectations."  Wood says the piecemeal design approach is worth it: offshore labor is $5-10/hr versus $50-100/hr stateside. 

Still, product prices are premium level.  Standard products run about $50 USD per cubic inch of material.  Bigger items, like the 18" x 6" koi fish pond mural, cost over $3,000 USD.              

Glass Printing

There are other organizations pioneering 3D glass printing, most notably the Open3DP project at the University of Washington's Solheim Rapid Prototyping Laboratory, but none appear to be as far along as ProMetal, which has been working on the process for over a year.  "We are in the very very final stages of

ProMetal 3D printed glass vase
A ProMetal 3D printed glass vase that was hand color-glazed

development," says Wood.  "We will start taking orders within the next 2-3 weeks."

To print glass, ProMetal is using the same MIT-licensed technology that it uses for metal printing.  Ink jets squirt liquid binder onto a powder media to build one thin layer (.004-.007") on top of another. 

The difference lies in the post build treatment.  Both glass and metal 3D printed "green" parts are furnace sintered (about 1,000°C for metal, 1,200°C for glass) to remove the polymeric binder, but metal normally undergoes a second heat cycle to infiltrate the porous material with bronze.  Glass isn't infiltrated, but instead receives a lower-melting-point glaze - also called a flux - that delivers a smooth shiny effect.  "It's for strength and appearance, but mostly appearance," relates Wood.  Un-infiltrated parts - glass or metal - have a shrinkage rate of about 10%.     

The resultant glass is a translucent frosted white.  "This process will never have true transparency," says Wood.  ProMetal has never attempted any other color besides white.

Initially, Wood expects the additive fabrication glass products will all be for the art and decorative market.  "This is one of the materials [rapid prototyping artist Bathsheba Grossman] has wanted for years," says Wood.  "In [glass] testing we've produced about every one of her shapes."

Later, Wood hopes glass printing will have much wider application.  An industrial application he has already identified is glass filters.  "How much we sinter determines how much porosity the glass has," he says. 

3D Printer Introduction

"First and foremost we are a machine manufacturer," states Wood, although until now ProMetal has had limited success, with just 40 installations.  "Most all of these are in the research world because of the [low] speeds and [limited] volumes."  (ProMetal also has 13 machines in-house, which it uses in a service bureau capacity.)

Wood hopes his new machine - the Mprint - will change all that.  It is running on the ProMetal shop floor, and is in the final stages of development.  "We've been tweaking it for the last month - the first machine will be out the middle of this year," says Wood.

The M-print is a substantial upgrade from ProMetal's existing "R-1 R&D 3D printer" and "R-2 production 3D printer."  "The target is 2.5 times to 3 times faster than an R-2 and 40 times the build size," says Wood.  The speed is a minute-and-a-half  per layer.  The build size is 750X380X400mm.  "It's very feasible to use it to manufacture with," he says.  

Wood doesn't expect much direct competition for the new printer.  Most other metal additive manufacturing equipment manufacturers have concentrated on high value materials (gold and titanium) and processes (electron beam melting, lasercusing, selective laser melting, direct metal laser sintering) for use in high margin industries like medical/dental and aerospace.  (Another division of Ex One - imagen - is a resident of this space, concentrating on the freeform fabrication of high noble dental products.)   

"They don't focus on the lower end materials like iron and bronze," says Wood.  "Our process is much less expensive, although it's still in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Our biggest competitor is traditional foundries and investment casting."

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