Can Metal be 3D Printed?
As you likely gathered from above, the short answer to this question is yes, you can 3D print metal. The long answer is also going to come to a resounding yes, but let’s take a look in a bit more detail.
Metal 3D printing has been around for a few years now and is becoming more and more available as industry leaders find new ways to use metal in the 3D printing process. These days there are several processes that 3D printers can use to print metal including Selective Laser Melting, Direct Metal Laser Sintering, Electron Beam Melting, and Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing to name a few.
Each of those processes has enough information about them to write full articles in themselves, so we’ll avoid getting into the nitty-gritty details here. Suffice it to say, the above processes can be used to create high-quality 3D printed parts out of single metals, various alloys, and even superalloys.
The bottom line is yes, metal can be 3D printed. Let’s take a look at what benefits metal 3D printing has to offer.
Benefits of 3D Printing Metal Parts
Keep in mind there are many more benefits to metal 3D printing, these are just a few of the key reasons why metal 3D printing is so useful.
With most metal manufacturing processes, whether it’s turning, machining, drilling, stamping, casting, or any other type, there’s generally a limit to the amount of complexity or customization. Maybe the tools can only produce certain features, or you don’t want to spend a fortune on machine time trying to get the perfect part.
Just like with other 3D printing processes, metal 3D printing is a method of additive manufacturing, building up material rather than removing it (i.e. milling or machining). This allows you to create the most intricate of details and the most intriguing features since the machine will only add the metal where it needs to be, rather than figuring out a way to remove certain bits and pieces.
Less Tooling Necessary — Reduced Cost to You
The larger benefit here is less cost to produce parts, but here’s a more specific reason as to why metal 3D printing reduces the cost to you. As any individual or company that’s spent reasonable time manufacturing metal parts the traditional way can tell you, the tooling required can be downright expensive.
You will need different tools (bits, end mills, etc.) depending on the type of metal, the process you’re using, the complexity, and more. The prices for these tools will add up over time and you’ll realize how much extra it’s costing you to make those parts. That’s where metal 3D printing comes in.
Since 3D printing metal involves adding material when and where it’s needed, you don’t need to spend money on tooling for every different project, which you then need to keep replacing. Sure there will be upfront costs to get the printer setup, but once it’s going you’ll be good to go. This can be a substantial savings in the long run.
Gone are the days when 3D printing is limited to basic polymers and geometries. With the advancements in the industry in recent years, we’re getting to the point where you can make just about any part you want out of any material you choose.
With metal 3D printing, you have a whole palette of material options available to you. This also gives you the creative freedom to try different alloys for different parts to determine what’s best for you. Common metals that are 3D printed include aluminum alloys, stainless steel, tool steel, titanium alloys, superalloys including nickel and cobalt-chrome, and even some precious metals.
With all these options available, you can design your parts with just about any metal that you think will work best. Chances are high no matter which metal you choose — within reason — you’ll be able to 3D print your part out of it.
Small Batch Manufacturing
One of the biggest barricades to entry in design and manufacturing is the cost to actually manufacture the parts you design. When you outsource your manufacturing, many companies will not do small batches or if they do, it will come with a hefty price tag. With metal 3D printing, you can print as many (or as few) parts as you like for a fraction of the cost.
This enables you to design and test more prototypes so that you can nail down the perfect design, or just gives you the capability to print out one or two parts for any reason you need them for. Without a metal 3D printer, small-batch manufacturing is incredibly expensive and many people find it to not be worth it.
What Can You Do with Metal 3D Printing?
As you just read, metal 3D printing opens the door to manufacturing parts that used to only be possible through traditional metal processing methods. Here are a couple of ideas to get the wheels turning in your head about what you can do with metal 3D printing.
Think about almost any complex assembly of parts on any sort of vehicle, tool, toy, etc. They are usually constructed of many smaller parts and pieces that are in turn bolted or welded together to form the final assembly. If you have a metal 3D printer, you can skip the assembly step and print the whole thing.
Imagine the time — and therefore cost — saved on assembly if there was simply less need for it. Printing the whole assembly as one more complex part makes that a reality. This will also save you on future maintenance costs as there are fewer points of failure if everything is all just one piece.
Have you ever thought of a part that you wanted to make but it was just too difficult with traditional manufacturing processes?
For example, you may have designed a metal tube with some sort of lattice on the inside to disperse flow exactly as needed within the tube. Or maybe you’ve come up with a design that includes internal channels aligned in such a way to direct flow like never before. Things like that would likely be impossible to produce with normal manufacturing.
But with a 3D printer, adding these internal structures doesn’t make it any more complex for the printer to make.
Limitations of Metal 3D Printing
So as you can see, there are plenty of reasons why metal 3D printing can be beneficial to you. But that’s not to say the technology is the end-all, be-all of manufacturing and should be the only option. Let’s look at some of the limitations of 3D printing metal.
Earlier you read about the ability to produce parts and assemblies all as one piece. While that’s true, it’s typically only true on a smaller scale. The size of the parts and assemblies that you can make are limited based on the printer that you’re using and the precision that you’re looking for.
For example, you aren’t going to be able to just 3D print an entire car and expect it to be a high-quality, functioning vehicle when the printer is finished. Not yet.
Usually Requires Post-Processing
This will depend on the desired surface finish of the completed part among other things, but you will most likely require some sort of post-processing to get the parts the way you want them. Especially with complex designs, it’s typical for the printer to build support structures for the complex pieces so that it’s able to print them.
These structures will need to be removed after the parts are finished, along with any surface roughness or protrusions that are undesirable. This adds time and cost to the total build time of the parts.