Vuecason is developing a novel metal additive manufacturing method with minimal post processing. We use a wire fed process to print pure metal through a nozzle - similar to plastic. This allows us to heat and place pure metal in one single step, eliminating the need for de-binding, sintering, or powder. Our printer will be capable of producing large, high performance parts with really short lead times.
The development of machine tools such as lathes have allowed for the production of large, high precision metal parts. The advent of machine tools were instrumental in the invention of the steam engine, textile mills, and other machines, birthing the industrial revolution. With greater automation potential, operational flexibility, and ability to produce complex geometries, metal 3D printers can become the ultimate machine tool. Additive manufacturing (AM) can serve as an abstraction layer in the manufacturing process, so engineers can spend less time thinking about manufacturability. Fast, reliable, and cost-effective metal AM will allow for iteration in production, localize production, and allow for more sophisticated parts. By printing pure metal wire, many issues of existing metal AM processes can be avoided.
Significance of machine tooling
A machine tool is a machine that helps build machines and products- making them an important underlying part of any industrial society and key to the industrial capacity of a nation. To honor the history of machine tooling, Vuecason is named after Jacques de Vaucanson, inventor of the all-metal lathe in 1751. Prior to Vaucanson's lathe, all-metal lathes were primarily used for watchmaking. Watchmaking lathes were too small to make the large parts necessary for larger metal lathes and wooden lathes were unable to provide the precision required . Vaucanson’s large, all-metal lathe enabled the creation of large, high precision metal parts which fueled the 19th century industrial revolution. Without the lathe, James Watt's steam engine wouldn't exist nor would (insert other prolific invention). Vaucanson made it possible to manufacture large, precision metal parts; however, for an engineer, the ability to manufacture is not the only constraint. Currently, most part designs are constrained by cost effective manufacturing raising the fundamental questions:
How can we improve the ability to place and shape metal?
How can we design machine tools to iterate at scale?
State of modern manufacturing
Modern supply chains have become very complex, following the JIT (Just In Time) manufacturing paradigm. The core principle behind JIT is to minimize inventory which drives cost reductions by tightening the feedback loop between suppliers and vendors.
The JIT paradigm results in efficient production, but creates vulnerability when production is non-local. The logistics overhead and lack of vertical integration actually work against the core principles behind JIT. The true goal of JIT is to improve the iteration speed. A manufacturer is able to catch errors faster, reducing defective inventory. AM will be the most iterable and automated process, allowing for cost-effective localization. Localized digital fabrication allows manufacturers to make JIT more robust. AM will allow for robust JIT for the first time in history.
3D printing is not the Startrek Replicator
In 2015, Morgan Stanley forecasted that the additive manufacturing market would be valued at $21.3 billion by 2020. Ark invest predicted the market would be valued at $41 billion in 2020. However, at the end of 2019, the additive manufacturing market was only valued at $12 billion. Metal 3D printing has largely been overhyped and oversold to the public. Most coverage fails to mention the difficulty in designing parts for AM, the additional labor required to set up printers, the inconvenience of post-processing parts, lack of reliability, lack of consistency across machines, and scalability issues. A major barrier of entry to AM is that parts are designed around existing manufacturing capabilities such as CNC milling. This acts as a moat against metal AM because any part optimized for conventional manufacturing is suboptimal for metal printing. Parts need to be redesigned to be produced with AM. The AM industry didn't grow as expected because switching costs were overlooked, its capabilities oversold, and a misunderstanding of initial use cases. The narrative that all manufacturing will be replaced with 3D printing is one that appears in the media too often and is not the reality of how AM will be used.
AM companies have developed their printers under the wrong constraints. A typical deep tech company, like most metal printing companies, takes existing research, scopes out a rationale for why it's better than what currently exists, and then tries to commercialize it. There have been efforts to optimize print times, but it does so at the cost of more intense post-processing, so it actually increases lead times. Metal AM isn't even great for prototyping if there is an intent to manufacture the prototyped design with a traditional process. The key purpose of a prototype is to evaluate the physical properties of a part and to test how manufacturable it is. What's the point in prototyping on a 3D printer if all the physical properties are different compared to the end-use manufactured part? Metal AM needs to be fast, cheap, and automated enough for manufacturing the end-use part that's being prototyped. Then the same print methodology for prototyping can go directly into manufacturing and the physical properties on either process are the same. The same manufacturing method must be used for prototyping and end-use production, so prototyping is done within the real manufacturing constraints. Without that, AM is only good for single part prototyping.
CNC Milling is not the digital fabrication future
One might think that CNC machining could achieve the same benefits of additive manufacturing: rapid prototyping, localized production, and iteration in production. This rarely plays out to be true. Cost effective CNC production requires good fixture design. In order to rapidly prototype or iterate on parts significantly, the fixture design needs to be altered or manually reconfigured. Fixturing also results in more time spent on programming the machine when setting up a production run. This results in some retooling effort between design iterations for cost-effective production.
Here's a video showing fixturing and CNC milling if you're unfamiliar the concept:
A wire-based metal printer does not use fixtures, the parts are welded to the baseplate when printing the first layer eliminating the fixture design step. All orientation and placement is controlled with software instead. Typically, CNC machines require skilled operators and CNC programmers to set up a production run because the material is placed in the machine by a human or robot that isn't the CNC machine itself. With a metal printer/CNC hybrid machine, all metal that needs to be machined is placed by the machine allowing for better localization and eliminating collision risk. There's no additional CNC programming needed. This reduced the complexity when iterating on a design compared to traditional CNC milling.
The goal of Vuecason is to improve the ability to iterate hardware at scale
If hardware can iterate and scale-like software, we'd see far more technological progress in the world of atoms (aside from regulation). The ability to iterate easily changes engineering culture and process. Often ambitious technology isn't developed due to concerns about feasibility, cost, and manufacturability- not physics. A machine that allows for quick prototyping, low volume manufacturing, with a low cost means more ambitious designs can be attempted.
To continue the computing analogy: Our metal 3D printers are going to be the FPGA equivalent for advanced part manufacturing. FPGAs allow us to make low-volume, high-performance custom digital circuits. They can be iterated upon, even after manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing will still exist the way ASICs exist- high volume, high performance, but no ability to iterate. FPGAs are key in ASIC prototyping. Metal printers are going to be key in production tool prototyping. Our factories are going to be the cloud equivalent for manufacturing- an engineer won't have to think as much about setting up scaling infrastructure on their own. All of this brings us closer to the 1-click manufacturing future.