3D printing is a technology that continues to expand and improve with no sign of slowing down. It is now a manufacturing process that can be used for a wide range of industrial applications including metals.
From inserts with cooling channels to lightweight structures for aerospace, this technology has a wide variety of uses. Using a metal powder bed fusion process, it is capable of producing parts that are highly durable and strong.
How It Works
With metal 3D printing, a digital model is sliced into layers and then fabricated using an additive process. This means that each layer builds on top of the previous layer, allowing the printer to create complex shapes that wouldn’t be possible with subtractive methods. This type of fabrication is a much faster and more cost-effective way to manufacture parts than traditional manufacturing techniques, which require carving into roughly shaped chunks of metal.
There are a number of different types of metals that can be used in 3D printing, including high-performance alloys such as titanium. These materials can be difficult to work with and require specific cooling rates. However, modern metal 3D printers are designed to work with these materials and are able to produce intricate components that would be impossible or extremely expensive to manufacture otherwise.
As a result, companies are now using metal 3D printing to make end-use parts. This is especially common in the aerospace and automotive industries, where companies can save money by printing jigs and fixtures instead of buying or building them from scratch. In addition, these prints are lighter than their traditionally manufactured counterparts, which can improve fuel efficiency and reduce the weight of the vehicle.
While the cost of metal 3D printing is lower than traditional methods, there are a few issues that need to be taken into consideration. For example, the granular nature of unprocessed metal can lead to a higher surface roughness, which can reduce fatigue strength. Additionally, a support structure is nearly always required with metal powder bed fusion technologies (except for DED). This helps anchor the part to the base plate to draw away heat and prevent residual stresses.
When it comes to metal 3D printing, there are a number of different materials available, each with their own unique properties. It is important to understand these metals and how they can be used, as selecting the right metal for a part or product can be critical in terms of the part’s functional performance, durability and aesthetic.
Most commonly, the materials used in metal 3D printing are based on steel powders. These powders have to be very fine in order to form the ultra-thin layers of metal that make up a print. The powder is then melted and bonded together by a high-precision laser that scans the surface of the powder layer and selectively melts or bonds it to the layers beneath it, building the part one layer at a time.
While the resulting parts are extremely strong and durable, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for them to reach full production quality. Post-processing techniques such as media blasting, metal plating, heat treatment and CNC machining can be used to improve the mechanical properties, accuracy and surface finish of a printed part.
This allows for a much easier, safer and less messy printing process. It is also a lot faster than the other powder bed fusion technologies, meaning it can be used to produce parts much quicker. Moreover, since the waxy polymers are very safe to handle, it makes BPE an extremely flexible process that can be used for anything from prototyping to a full production run.
Metal additive manufacturing allows manufacturers to go from design to production much faster than conventional fabrication techniques, drastically shortening lead times and allowing products to reach market more quickly. However, successful implementation of metal 3D printing will require companies to understand and address several key business challenges that are unique to this technology.
One of the most significant obstacles is the cost of metal 3D printers. Although the prices of these machines have fallen significantly in recent years, they still remain much higher than traditional metal fabrication equipment. As a result, it is essential that the business model for a company considering investing in this technology is carefully considered to ensure that it can afford the investment.
Despite the high cost of metal additive manufacturing equipment, the technology is very versatile and can be used to produce a wide range of parts. This flexibility allows it to be used in a variety of applications, from functional prototyping to on-demand manufacturing. The aerospace and automotive industries have been among the most committed early adopters of this technology, owing to the lightweight, complex, and strong parts that it can produce.
The most popular process for metal additive manufacturing is powder bed fusion, which can be used to create a range of metal parts from titanium to nickel alloys. It is particularly well suited to high-performance applications in motorsport, aviation, and medical/dental industries.
3D printing with metals is no longer just a prototyping tool. It is used in a variety of production applications that involve a high level of complexity and demanding mechanical performance, such as inserts with cooling channels, lightweight structures for aerospace industry components, and complex tooling equipment.
The key to using 3D printed parts for these applications is that the print process wastes less material than traditional manufacturing methods and produces stronger, lighter parts than machining can. It also allows engineers to design and create parts with features that cannot be fabricated with traditional manufacturing techniques.
While the different types of metal 3D printers and processes differ significantly, all rely on the same basic principles: a metal powder is heated by a laser or electron beam to fuse it with nearby particles to form a solid object. The result is a component with the desired shape and size that can be used in its green state, or subjected to post-processing, debinding, and sintering, before it can be used for actual function.
Metal additive manufacturing is rapidly growing in popularity as more and more businesses realize the benefits of being able to produce a wide range of products in a shorter period of time and at lower costs than ever before. To find out if this innovative technology is right for your next project, contact a Xometry Representative.