3D Printing’s Next Act

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionise the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

A new method from a startup called Seurat Technologies — using a powerful laser technique — could be the breakthrough the industry has been waiting for.

Today’s metal 3D printing works by shining a laser onto a thin layer of metal powder, melting it and welding it to the layer below. The digital design gradually takes shape as the layers accumulate and the object grows. It’s an extremely slow process, however. Even with multiple lasers, 3D metal printing hasn’t accelerated fast enough to produce auto parts and consumer electronics in high numbers.

The technology from Seurat — named for the painter Georges Seurat, who studied the science of light and pioneered the style known as pointillism — speeds things up by splitting a single, high-powered laser beam into as many as 2.3 million beams of light.

A 30 kW laser is patterned with high-resolution images that can be programmed to block or let light through each of its pixels. Every pixel defines its own laser spot, so the system can weld a large area of metal powder in an instant — allowing a multi-layered object to take shape 10 times faster than today’s 3D printing technology.

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