Israel-based start-up Xjet plans to bring the world's first direct-metal 3D printer based on jetting technology to market in 2016, according to the Times of Israel.
Fellow 3D printing company Objet, now part of Stratasys (SSYS -0.27%), pioneered the use of jetting technology in the 3D printing of polymers with its Polyjet tech. Xjet plans to do in the metals space what Objet did with polymers. Its metal 3D printer could be a game changer, because it will reportedly be more affordable than the metal 3D printers now on the market.
Here's what you should know.
Objet founder is back to hit another home run
Xjet is not just another of the seemingly endless new entrants into the 3D printing market. The company's leaders have already hit a home run in the polymer 3D printing world, and they're back and planning on a repeat in the metals space.
Xjet CEO Hanan Gothait is the founder and former CEO of Objet, which merged with Stratasys in 2012 to create what is now the world's largest 3D printing company. Stratasys wed Objet to obtain its very successful patented Polyjet technology. At the helm of Xjet with Gothait is Chief Business Officer Dror Danai, who had been VP of sales and business development at Objet.
Applied Material (AMAT -3.87%) and Landa Ventures are among the investors backing Xjet, according to the company's website. Applied Materials is a major maker of semiconductor equipment, a class of business which didn't seem to jibe with the type of more conventional metal 3D printing discussed in the Times of Israel article. After digging a bit, I found that Xjet was originally involved in developing an inkjet-based deposition system for solar cell manufacturers. The company appears to still have a relationship with Applied Materials and still be involved in such a venture, though I can't be certain.
Xjet's Nano Metal Jetting technology
The company's 3D printer is based on its patented Nano Metal Jetting technology. Since it uses jetting technology, NMJ forms parts from liquid metals, rather than the powder metals that are used by current 3D-printing technologies.
3D Systems makes metal printers based on laser sintering tech, the most prevalent metal 3D printing tech. Its printers, along with Arcam's patented electron beam melting (EBM) printers and ExOne's metal printers, all use powder metals. Stratasys doesn't make 3D printers that can print metals, but it does use them in its 3D printing services operations.
Xjet is creating proprietary liquid metals that are basically nanoparticles of specific metals mixed with a special liquid to form a solution. The Times of Israel quoted Danai as saying:
We are starting with stainless steel, and expect the printers and the liquid metal to be on the market in 2016. After that we will work on other metals. Eventually we hope to get to all the major metals used in manufacturing.
Starting with stainless steel makes sense given its prevalence. I'd also guess that it's easier to develop than some of the more exotic metals, such as titanium and Inconel, the "big two" metals in the aerospace realm. If you're thinking there must be a lot of materials science involved, you're right. Danai told the Times of Israel, "Fifty out of our 62 employees are engineers, and many of them are specialists in materials. Relative to our size, I think we may have the highest percentage of engineers of any tech company anywhere."
Cost is one of several key barriers holding 3D printing back from being more widely used in the still relatively nascent (compared to polymer 3D printing) but fast-growing metals space. Danai said, according to the Times of Israel, "Using our inkjet technology we will be able to make customized metal manufacturing affordable for even small companies."
I couldn't find any mention of Xjet's printer's expected speed relative to the leading technologies. Speed is arguably the largest hurdle holding back 3D printing -- regardless of material -- from making increased inroads in manufacturing applications.
Xjet's 3D printer could be a game changer if it can simply match the speed and other key qualities of the metal 3D printers now on the market, but at a significantly lower price. If Xjet is successful, some companies that now make metal 3D printers, such as Triple D, could eventually see a loss of business.