The Filamet factor

Revolutionary filament makes 3D metal printing affordable — and in high demand.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Stoughton, Wisconsin has a proud reputation for its Norwegian culture including its Syttende Mai celebrations, the Livsreise Norwegian heritage museum, and a North American trucking company that bears its name, Stoughton Trailers.

But if one local engineer’s invention takes off as anticipated, the city may have a technical reason to celebrate, as well.

Bradley Woods is the 47-year-old founder and CEO of The Virtual Foundry, a materials manufacturer for the 3D printing industry. His printing filament is a trademarked material called Filamet, and it allows anyone with a common 3D printer to print full metal objects in bronze, stainless steel, and copper, with titanium, aluminum, and other metals on the way. “What makes our product unique is the ability to 3D print metal without heat and without the need for a high-cost printer,” Woods says.

From top: A 3D print of a miniature engine was produced from a mix of steel and bronze Filamet. Using an indirect printing method, the item is buried in aluminum oxide powder and heated in a high-tech vacuum furnace. The plastic burns away and the metal particles are welded, or sintered, together. Once complete, the 100-percent metal object can be buffed and polished.

“If you print plastic, you can use our product and end up with a pure metal object,” he adds.

The ability to do that affordably is truly the company’s niche. “Ultimately, all we make is string that’s wrapped on a spool,” says Woods, smiling humbly.

Obviously, it’s so much more than that. Filamet, made of a secret mix of plastic pellets mixed with metal powder, resembles wire and is produced in widths of 1.75mm or 2.85mm, sold online, and shipped to customers around the world.

Filamet fuels a 3D printer not unlike ink feeds an inkjet printer. According to The Virtual Foundry website, Filamet has the highest metal content of any filament currently being produced for 3D printing, ranging from at least 80 percent metal (High Carbon Iron), to as much as 88 percent copper.

After fired in a kiln, an object printed with Filamet becomes 100 percent metal.

Woods, a self-taught computer scientist with an interest in metals and sculptures, had tried for years to figure out a way to manipulate metal without using the extreme heat of a foundry.

He spent years as a software engineer and even worked for American Family Insurance for 10 years, but in his off hours he’d be working at home trying to crack that technical nut.

About four years ago, working from his basement, Woods built his own 3D printer but the end result  — a piece of plastic — was disappointing. “My first thoughts were, ‘Okay, 3D printing is very important, but it has to move beyond plastic to be relevant over time.’”

That started him on a quest to develop a better 3D printing material, and to this day he has succeeded where many others have failed.

Industry experts have described Woods’ Filamet invention as “revolutionary” and “miraculous.” At an engineering training seminar in 2015, a Lockheed-Martin engineer introduced Woods as “the man that has found the holy grail of 3D printing.”

Filamet is now distributed across all seven continents, including Antarctica, and it’s all happening from a very inconspicuous space just down from Stoughton’s Main Street. In five years, the company would like to reach $10 million in sales.

On this visit, it’s immediately clear that the Filamet manufacturing process will remain a mystery. Much of the machinery involved in the making of Filamet remains under a large tarp and proprietary, but for good reason.

“We’re the only company in the world that’s doing this,” Woods says. Others have tried, but haven’t been able to bring their products to market, and their printers start at around $1 million.

Hiring Tricia Suess as Virtual Foundry’s president was a turning point, Woods says.

In the back of the company’s R&D space, several 3D prints are displayed for demonstration purposes only. An Easter Island moai made of copper stands about seven inches tall but weighs six-and-a-half pounds. It is the heaviest piece the company has printed thus far. A piece of copper chain mail flexes in Woods’ hands and it’s hard to wrap logic around the fact that the interlocked links came from a printer. These items are all pure metal, he explains, a result of burning away all the plastic in the Filamet.

“My trade secret is that nobody else has figured out how to get this much metal into filament that’s strong enough to get through a printer,” Woods says.

The company filed for a patent three years ago, but it’s a slow process. “Our attorney thinks we’re getting close,” he adds,  somewhat wryly.

While the details involved in the manufacturing of Filamet remain proprietary, company President Tricia Suess explains the basics. “We use an extruder, so plastic and metal powder get mixed together and the product comes out the other end, kind of like a Play-Doh Fun Factory,” she muses. The challenge is in getting the right ratios of metal and plastic. “It’s a very delicate balance,” Suess notes. “Changes, even in the shape of the particles used, can affect the manufacturing process.”

Depending on the metal, the product seems surprisingly inexpensive. A kilo of copper Filamet, for example, costs just $110 on the company’s website.

(Continued)

 

Champing at the bit

Meanwhile, demand for aluminum Filamet is outpacing the company’s capacity. “Our users have asked us to just make the aluminum and they’ll figure it out,” Woods notes. Most of those users include research and development facilities such as Argonne National Laboratory and the Department of Energy. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has become a significant client, as well, because Virtual Foundry’s process does not require gravity, as do other 3D systems. The U.S. Navy has also expressed interest.

Reason to smile: Woods’ invention of Filamet has been hailed as revolutionary in the 3D printing industry. “If you print plastic, you can print this,” says the founder and CEO of The Virtual Foundry, a materials manufacturer. The items above are 100-percent metal printed with inexpensive 3D printers — for demonstration purposes only. There’s a piece of flexible copper chain mail, a mixed-metal polished engine, and a six-and-a-half pound copper Easter Island moai that stands about seven inches tall. To date, the moai is the heaviest metal object The Virtual Foundry has printed.

The auto industry is equally enthralled, especially since powdered metals have become more common in manufacturing. Woods says he recently met with ZF North America, a huge auto part fabricator near Detroit. “They’re looking at methods of fabricating parts that are extremely difficult to fabricate any other way.” In fact, he reports, ZF is so committed to 3D metal printing that it is building a laboratory around it.

One piece in particular, a vehicle torque converter, might have 75 individual parts, and ZF wants to be able to print it fully in metal. “3D printing makes it relatively simple to fabricate some shapes, and another advantage is that you can 3D print with more than one metal at a time,” Woods explains. “You cannot cast two metals at the same time [in a foundry].”

As a materials manufacturer, The Virtual Foundry only creates and sells the fuel for 3D printers. In most cases, the company doesn’t know what its product will be used for. But one thing is certain — Filamet is generating interest worldwide 

Meanwhile, the company works to improve upon the product every day. In The Virtual Foundry’s printing lab, most of the 3D printers the company uses for testing are inexpensive knockoffs of common 3D printers, and that’s exactly the point, Woods says. “It’s affordable, and if you can print plastic, you can print metal.”

The actual process is relatively simple: Filamet is fed into a 3D printer, the piece is printed, buried in a container of aluminum oxide, and then fired in a high-tech furnace to burn away the plastic.

“The item is filled with millions of metal particles. When it’s heated to the right temperature, the plastic burns away and the metal particles weld together to form a 100-percent metal object. We call that sintering,” Woods explains.

With Filamet, a company can create items on site and as needed rather than keeping many in inventory. It can eliminate tooling and machining costs for short-run manufacturing, prototyping, and one-off metal parts, Woods explains.

“At first, I didn’t understand how difficult it would be to explain this,” he admits. “It’s taken a long time to convince people that this is a good idea, but lately we’ve really started to hit our stride.”

He’s also very clear on why that tide has turned. “This was all just me in my basement until I crawled out into this space for about a year. Things turned around when I hired Tricia as president. It was the best thing I did and was a huge turning point for all of us.”

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