What Should You Know About Metal 3D Printing?

First Posted: Jul 24, 2019 09:37 AM EDT
Metal 3D Printing

(Photo : Alex Kremer)

When you're working with an experienced metal fabricator, they can help you understand the technical considerations that come with a metal project. For example, anodization provides excellent corrosion resistance if that's a key priority. 

Beyond that, metal 3D printing is something you might need to create a prototype or to bring to life an engineering process. 

When it comes to metal fabrication in general, there is a lot to consider,and a metal 3D prototype can help you understand potential weaknesses and areas for improvement in your project. The following are some of the important points to keep in mind about metal 3D printing and the related technology, and it's potential differences from 3D printing with other materials. 

How Does 3D Metal Printing Work?

Metal 3D printing is much like 3D printing with other materials. For example, the process usually begins with a CAD design. The CAD design should have the details of the design that will be used by the printer. 

As with other types of 3D printing, metal printing involves different layers. The design is sliced horizontally before it's then built. The 3D metal printer takes the instructions from the computer, and then the laser component of the printer receives those instructions.

From the instructions, shapes are traced in the powder. 

The laser heats the powder to create the solid shape of the product. 

After the first base is traced out, the process begins with each layer being no more than 0.1mm in thickness. 

With metal 3D printing, there is significantly less waste and things that are 3D printed using metal tend to be significantly lighter than machined metal parts and pieces. 

Metal 3D Manufacturing Processes

There are two types of manufacturing processes often used in 3D printing with metal.

The first is Selective Laser Melting or SLM and Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS. The differences between these two process include the fact that SLM uses metal powder with one unified melting temperature. DMLS, on the other hand, is a powder that has materials with distinctive melting points. Their molecules fuse with heat. 

SLM creates parts from one metal, and DMLS means you have parts created from alloys. 

How Is Metal Printing Different From a Rapid 3D Prototype?

For the most part, a rapid prototype including the machine and the processes used is very similar to 3D metal printing.

The biggest difference is that a rapid prototype can take on bigger designs,and a rapid prototype machine can lead to more accuracy.

3D metal printing is more complex than other forms of rapid prototype, and this is reflected in the higher costs. 3D metal printing is less accessible than other types of 3D printing too. 

When metal 3D printing is used, it does offer parts that have great mechanical details beyond what can be created with typical CNC machining. 

What's interesting is that sometimes 3D metal printed products are better than products made through the use of traditional manufacturing processes. 

The Technology

It's more difficult to find 3D metal printers, and there's less consumer technology geared toward 3D metal printing than other types of metal printing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

There's a lot of new consumer-based technology being introduced that can make 3D metal printing more accessible. 

For example, HP introduced the HP Metal Jet in 2018 at the International Manufacturing Technology Show. This technology allows for product-grade metal 3D printing, and it has the capability for high-volume printing. Of course, with a price tag of around $400,000, this isn't likely something you're going to use in your home,but for businesses, it could prove to be a valuable investment. 

Currently, some industries already rely on 3D metal printing for their everyday products. As an example, medical and dental implants are being made using metal 3D printing. This makes for a very customizable product.

The jewelry industry is significantly using metal 3D printing,as is the aerospace industry. The auto industry is likely to follow in the footsteps of these industries and start using metal 3D printing not only for prototypes, which they already do but for the actual parts that will be used in vehicles. 

Metal 3D printing, while still fairly new in many ways, is something people in science, technology,and the business world, in general, are keeping a close eye on. Of course, it has downsides,including the high costs, but metal 3D printing has many compelling benefits as well when compared to traditional metal fabrication.

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