College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

The magic of 3-D metal printing

Deep in the basement of the agricultural and biosystems engineering building at Iowa State University, a tiny laser pings back and forth from the guts of a gargantuan 3-D printer, striking a thin layer of metal dust on a metal plate at precisely the right spots.

Within seconds, the outline of a pair of scissors begins to emerge as the laser continues its path back and forth hundreds and hundreds of times, melding the thin layers of dust brushed over the plate with an automated roller. Hours later, a perfectly formed pair of scissors is ready for snipping.

And scissors are one of the least interesting things created by this 3-D metal printer, which, experts say, is limited only by the imagination of its operator.

The $900,000 metal 3-D printer recently installed at Iowa State isn’t all that different from the plastic 3-D printers that have swept through the worlds of traditional manufacturing and high-tech entrepreneurship. In fact, 3-D printing is becoming so ubiquitous that researchers have printed everything from edible pizza to models of human hearts to prosthetics for amputees.

But experts say metal 3-D printers like the one at Iowa State are poised to alter the manufacturing process, since the mammoth machines can help companies build prototypes and line-ready parts more quickly and cheaply. And without the traditional constraints of machinery encumbering the design process, 3-D printers can create parts that would be impossible with popular manufacturing methods.

“I spent 25 years learning how I can’t make a part. There are a lot of limitations,” said Chris Hill, who, after building consumer appliances, now works with the new 3-D printer on Iowa State’s campus. “This particular process eliminates a lot of those limitations.”

For the original Des Moines Register article, click here.