Xerox looks to 3D printing for growth

Xerox has acquired a 3D printing developer, Vader Systems, based in Buffalo, New York, USA, and is developing various technologies for the 3D printing market as it looks to grow beyond its own core competences.

Steve Hoover, chief technology officer for Xerox, holds up a 3d-printed metal part.

Steve Hoover, Xerox’s chief technology officer, described Vader Systems as a pre-revenue start-up, which is a polite way of saying that the company has burned through a ton of cash and not yet made any back. According to Hoover, existing metal printing technologies all use materials that are too expensive, and can’t print all the grades of materials, such as aluminium, that automotive and aerospace manufacturers want. Hoover said that Vader Systems gets around this by melting metal into molten form so that it can be “ejected from a nozzle like an inkjet printer.” This in turn led to challenges such as forming the drops, which Hoover said are just like any inkjet and that Xerox is used to dealing with this. 

Actually, Vader used magnetic fields to control the liquid metal drops, which is similar to the way that some continuous inkjet systems work. Naturally, they christened this process Magnetojet printing.

The company is headed by Scott Vader, with his son Zachary responsible for most of the actual concept. As it happens, I interviewed them a couple of years ago for another project I was working on. At that time they were getting ready to start showing their first machine, the Mark One, having announced their printing concept back in 2013. Zachary said that his goal had been to develop a process that was cheap to produce and with good enough productivity to make it attractive to industrial users, which led him to look into using inkjet. Unfortunately most inkjet printheads can’t handle the high heat that jetting molten metal entails so the Vaders developed their own ceramic printhead. Back in 2016 this was capable of producing 1000 drops per second. At the time they were working with a single nozzle but planned to add more nozzles for faster speeds.

For the raw material, the Vaders were using commonly available 9mm wire. That first machine printed aluminium but the Vaders were expecting to expand this to other metals, including gold, silver, brass and copper, which have high conductivity and low melting points, with stainless steel to come at a later date.

Hoover added: “We are very excited with this process, which can deliver materials that can’t be printed with any other 3D printer, and which are the materials that manufacturers want, uses raw materials that cost one tenth of the current raw materials for 3D printing. These are the kinds of things that are going to take 3D printing into manufacturing and these are the kinds of things that we are working on.” 

However, Xerox is not just betting on the Vader Systems metal printing technology. Hoover explained: “We have technologies that go beyond that, we have a set of activities focused on significantly improving the speed of printing plastic parts. So you can print plastic parts but certain technologies are very slow. We have technologies that can improve that by 8-10X. We have technologies that can drive down the cost of the raw materials, and we have the software technologies for the end to end workflow. 2019 is a year that’s about getting those technologies through some of their key milestones and enabling customer trials and installed in 2020.” 

Hoover went on to suggest that Xerox would offer some of the 3D printing technology under the “powered by Xerox” license to other vendors. This would make sense as Xerox does not have the sales channels to sell these 3D printers. Also, if Xerox can make a dramatic difference to the printing speed then this would be of interest to several existing vendors, and Xerox would make a higher profit licensing its technology to all of these players. 

Hoover also suggested that Xerox would be able to use its expertise in developing print workflows to come up with workflow software for 3D printing. There are some existing workflows for 3D printing, but nothing as advanced as the workflows commonly used in graphic arts printing, where there is a deep level of integration from design through to production, and including all the post processing as well as management information, stock control, delivery notes and invoicing. But there are also significant challenges in the 3D print sector to overcome in terms of design, file management and IP protection and several established players, from Siemens to Materialise, not to mention other vendors with graphic arts experience such as HP. And yet, it would be extremely interesting to see what Xerox could add to the mix.

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