A few years ago 3D printing was supposed to be the next big thing, but growth has been slower than those in the industry had hoped. The cost of 3D printers has come down, but they’re not much more proficient than they were when they cost thousands of dollars. Part of the problem is that printing with flimsy plastic limits what you can make, but a company called Markforged thinks it has a solution — carbon fiber-infused nylon that can be as strong as steel.
Printing with metal requires high temperatures and processes that need multiple pieces of equipment. Plastic printers are easier to use, but the items you get from such a device aren’t strong enough for long-term use.
The Markforged X3 and X5 printers split the difference with a single-step process that produces parts and tools with a custom plastic-carbon fiber composite. The X5 printer is capable of making parts that are 20 times stronger and 10 times stiffer than standard ABS plastic.
The company claims that its X5-printed material can replace machined aluminum in industrial applications. The key is Markforged thermoplastic fiber filament, which incorporates a “strand of continuous fiberglass” into the carbon fiber for added strength.
This second material requires special hardware inside the printer, so only the X5 supports it. Printing a part is with one of these printers is supposed to be 50 times faster than carving it out of aluminum and 20 times cheaper as there’s no wasted material.
It does seem to take much longer than regular plastic printing, though. A relatively small bike valve wrench like the one below took about 10 minutes to print.
Neither of these new printers are priced for customers. The X3 retails for $36,990 and the X5 is $49,900. The company wants co-called “local manufacturers” to buy these printers for making replacement parts and tools on the fly. Businesses can even pick up the X3 printer and upgrade it later to be well-matched with the secondary fiberglass filament support, basically turning it into the X5.
The company also makes smaller desktop printers that use similar printing technologies, but the less expensive one lacks the continuous fiberglass reinforcement that makes the X5 material as strong as steel. They are much cheaper at $3,499, though.
These are all very expensive printers, but we’re making progress. The MakerBot Replicator used to cost a few thousand dollars, and you had to build it yourself. Metal printing at home might not be safe, but maybe carbon fiber printing will be.
In addition to this, another exciting development in metamaterials, a team at MIT has taken flakes of graphene (the current reigning champ of strongest materials) and heat-fused them in a 3D printed mesh-like structure to create a new kind of material that is 10 times stronger than steel at only 5% of steel’s density.
Looks like graphene might have to surrender its championship belt soon.