Traditional manufacturing is great for producing lots of identical, simple parts with consistency. The trouble with that is lots and simple. If you’re a small business or a product designer, the old way of machining parts might not work for you. You don’t need thousands of a single part, or you might want to work in a unique metal. Or the complexity of your design doesn’t work for mass production. This is where 3D metal printing comes in. This additive manufacturing technology can make small, low-volume, complex metallic parts. These days, it’s commonly used in building parts for medical devices, cars, and even rockets.
Let’s look at the applications and advantages of 3D metal printing technology to help you decide if it is the right manufacturing choice for you.
How 3D Metal Printing Works
If you’ve ever seen a polymer 3D printer at work, you have the basic concept down. The printer puts down layer upon layer of material to build up the object. Only this time, the process uses metal powders to build your object rather than plastics.
Each thin coating of metal powder is spread over the build platform. A high-power laser then fuses the particles to create the cross-section layer. After that, the platform moves down by one layer’s thickness, and the process repeats layer by layer until the object is complete.
Supports are built right along with the part, holding it in place as it builds. Once the part has cooled, excess loose powder is brushed off, the supports ground off, and the part heat-treated to relieve any stresses. The part is then finished as needed or desired.
Benefits of 3D Metal Printing
Like any technology, metal 3D printing has great advantages. You can get the most from it if you understand the different processes and when the application is appropriate for them.
In general, if you need to make extremely complex parts or need them to be strong and lightweight, 3D printing techniques are worth considering. But there are many benefits to printing with metals over traditional machining.
- Rapid Prototyping
Proof of concept and prototyping are the most common uses for 3D printing of all types. A physical model allows you to evaluate a design created on a computer.
Once a prototype builds, you can evaluate the part for endurance and fit. A change in design is a simple process. You only need to push a few buttons rather than develop new molds or re-tool a manufacturing plant.
- Small Batch Manufacturing
Like prototyping, 3D printing is also used for short production runs for parts. This is great if you’re making a limited edition of an item or something for a niche industry, for example.
In fact, this is one of the reasons 3D metal printing has found a strong foothold within the aerospace industry. When you only make 25 of something in a year, it doesn’t make sense to invest in mass quantities.
- Faster Lead Times
In manufacturing, fast is a relative term. A part or mold might take a couple of days to print if the design is complex. But that is extremely fast compared to other methods.
This means you can get your part or try something new in a relatively short time frame.
- Less Waste
Up to 70 percent of the cost of printing in 3D is in the metal powders used. So reducing material waste leads to huge cost savings.
In traditional manufacturing, you cut away as much as 90 percent of material as waste. With 3D metal printing, less than 5 percent is wasted since unused powder from each layer is collected for use in the next layer. Unmelted powder at the end of the print can be blended with new powder for use in another build.
- New Design Possibilities
With 3D metal printing, you can manufacture complex parts with geometries that traditional manufacturing methods can’t make. The metal shapes more easily, making the range of structures and designs possible are nearly limitless.
These could be complex objects such as tubes within tubes or items with hollow middles and overhangs. Working with superfine layers that would be too delicate to cut normally is no problem with metal printing. This is helpful in industries that want lightweight parts to improve performance and reduce fuel consumption.
- Menu of Metals
Metal printed parts can be made with a large range of metals and alloys, including aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel. Those cover most industrial applications from medical to aerospace.
But you can also work with difficult materials such as metal superalloys or precious metals. High-strength materials such as cobalt-chrome and nickel can be printed to specifications and finished later to the appropriate surface finish.
- Easily Outsourced
Metal additive manufacturing technology doesn’t come cheap. The systems can run up to a million dollars.
Service bureaus provide the opportunity to access technology without having to invest in machinery. If you only need to make parts occasionally or want to test a new design, it makes more sense to use a service provider that has the experience and skills.
- Sized to Fit
Most 3D printers make small parts, especially those based on powder bed and binder jetting technology. Large parts present difficulties due to the build-up of stresses due to greater temperature changes.
But metal printing comes in a variety of technologies that make the production of larger parts possible. These provide a faster, cost-friendly alternative to large-scale castings and forgings.
The Future of Parts Manufacturing
High-end applications in medical and aerospace were the first uses of 3D metal printing. But more affordable solutions have expanded that to spare parts, custom tooling, and functional prototypes. Outsourcing to a service provider has put the option within reach of smaller and more specialized businesses.
3D technology is making the fast production of metal parts a reality. If you have questions about whether metal printing is the right path for your project, our experts would be happy to answer your questions. Contact us today to learn more or to get a quote for your project.
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