3D printer maker Desktop Metal has released FreeFoam, a new family of 3D printable photopolymer resins that contain heat-activated foaming agents.
Invented by Texas-based materials specialist Adaptive3D, a subsidiary of Desktop Metal acquired in 2021, FreeFoam can be programmed to expand from 2 to 7 times its original printed size without any tooling. The result is the production of adjustable and durable closed cell foam parts, which are expected to be widely used in industries such as automotive, furniture, sporting goods, footwear and healthcare.
Initially available exclusively on the ETEC Xtreme 8K DLP 3D printer, FreeFoam will be showcased at Foam Expo North America in Michigan from June 28-30. The Expo will feature a 3D printed FreeFoam car seat developed in partnership with Camaco.
“FreeFoam is one of the most exciting and commercially important photopolymer solutions to come to industrial printing in years,” said Ric Fulop, Founder and CEO of Desktop Metal. “The market for conventionally made foam presents many challenges – from expensive molds that limit designs to dense, heavy foams that absorb water and are expensive to ship and drive, to the inability to easily compose Shore strength and hardness values in specific foam designs. ”
The expansion of Desktop metal
Based in Massachusetts and founded in 2015, Desktop Metal quickly rose to prominence in the additive manufacturing industry for its portfolio of metal binder jetting 3D printers. Since its IPO on the NYSE in December 2020, the company has gone through a period of rapid growth with a plethora of acquisitions.
Expansions include the creation of Desktop Health and wood 3D printing company Forust. The company acquired the EnvisionTEC OEM DLP 3D printer in January 2021, which was rebranded as ETEC shortly thereafter. Desktop Metal also acquired coating systems developer Aerosint and hydraulics company Aidro a few months later.
August 2021 saw one of Desktop Metal’s biggest plays yet, when it announced the acquisition of competing OEM ExOne binder-jet 3D printer for $575 million. The deal was approved in November, combining two of the industry’s leading binder jetting companies.
3D Printing Custom Foam Parts with FreeFoam
According to Desktop Metal, more than 1.5 billion pounds. of foam is produced each year for bedding, seating and a host of upholstery products. Conventional foam production involves cutting blocks of foam into smaller shapes as needed, which greatly limits the geometries that can be produced while resulting in significant waste of fillings.
Developed as part of Desktop Metal’s DuraChain product line, FreeFoam is designed to solve these problems, allowing manufacturers to 3D print their foam products in any shape they want. The resin can be 3D printed like any other via the DLP process, and expanded on demand when heated to temperatures of 160-170°C in an oven.
The key to FreeFoam is the dispersed foaming agents contained within, which create closed cell pores throughout the microstructure of the material. These pores can expand up to seven times their printed size depending on the exact quality of the resin. Desktop Metal intends to have several grades of the offering with different Shore hardness values and other properties such as water resistance.
Ultimately, customers will be able to 3D print parts much larger than the build volumes of the printers used to print them, reducing shipping space requirements and saving on logistics costs.
Fulop adds, “We are especially excited to unveil our FreeFoam innovation in the Detroit metro area, where our new foam material can help cars and light trucks while maintaining the performance and comfort expected of foam seating. With FreeFoam, Desktop Metal is ready to free the foam market from its many challenges.
FreeFoam is slated for broad commercial availability in 2023.
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Featured image shows a 3D printed FreeFoam car seat before (left) and after (right) expansion. Photo via Desktop Metal.