3D Printing Metal Has Become A Reality
Anyone that’s been following 3D printing since the beginning or who’s just gotten into it probably knows that the process began for certain composites and polymers. This is a fancier way of saying that 3D printing started as a manufacturing process that could create some fairly basic parts using plastics or pseudo-plastics, nothing that could really be put to the test and stand up to rigorous use.
But now that 3D printing metal has become a reality, the potential is through the roof.
As the technology gets more and more refined in the coming years, you’ll be able to potentially make just about anything with 3D metal printing that you can with any other type of 3D printing. And with that in mind, it means that the ability to create almost anything with 3D printed metal is possible.
Imagine the innovativeness and creativity of 3D printing in general combined with the strength, versatility, robustness, and durability of metal parts. That’s the world we’re living in now and it’s only going to get more impressive. So take advantage of this process from the start and see what doors 3D printing metal can open for you.
How Does 3D Printing Metal Work?
To keep it fairly simple at the start, 3D printing metal works in just about the exact same general way as any other type of 3D printing. As an additive manufacturing process, it starts at the base and just has layer after layer of the material (in this case metal) added to each other and fused together. While that’s all well and good for a general overview, 3D printing metal is of course a bit more involved than typical composites and polymers.
Like other types of 3D printing, printing metal starts in the same place — inside a computer. No matter what you’re 3D printing, it always starts with a design on a computer using computer aided design (CAD) software. In this software, you design your part, component, or assembly as a 3D model. This software then takes that model and transforms it into computer code in a language that 3D printers understand, known as stereolithography (.STL files).
Once the program is loaded into the 3D printer, the machine handles pretty much everything from there on its own. The printer takes the code from the .STL file and then begins by putting the first layer down of the design. After the base layer is added to the printer’s surface, it will continue printing layer upon layer until the final product has been created. This is where the magic happens within the printer, as it takes metal powder and adhesive and creates a solid metal 3D object.
The process is completed by using a laser in conjunction with the powder as it’s fed into the chamber. The laser pulses at extremely high temperatures to heat up the metal powder as it’s being laid down onto the layer below it. These high temperatures heat the metal of new powder coming down as well as the existing layer below it, allowing them to combine into one solid object.
3D printing metal is typically slower than other materials due to how thin the layers need to be if they’re going to seamlessly meld with each other. Each layer is usually less than a tenth of a millimeter in thickness, meaning that it takes ten layers just to create one millimeter worth of thickness — so you can imagine how slow the process can be to create any objects of substantial size.
The two most common processes used during 3D metal printing are Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS). The main difference between the two is how high the temperatures are and if the powder is actually melted during the printing process or just gotten hot enough to fuse with the layer(s) below.
What Can You Make Using 3D Printed Metal?
This is where the true beauty of the process of 3D printing metal really shines. There are honestly almost no limits to what can be created using 3D printing metal as long as it can be designed in a computer and feasibly created. Metal 3D printing can be used to create products that would otherwise be entirely impossible to create using any other method of manufacturing.
The ability to create such incredible products using 3D metal printing because of the ability to create intricate designs that just can’t be made any other way. During the printing process, the designer can include support structures such as lattices and other types of support that get printed right along with everything else and can then be removed after the product is finished. This unique ability is impossible with any other type of manufacturing, making it an invaluable ability.
3D printing metal is so important and such a big advancement in the field because metal products can be used in situations requiring more reliability and durability than other things can stand up to. This is especially useful in medical procedures, such as knee or hip replacements and even spinal repair. 3D printed metal parts can be created to specific shapes, designs, and tolerances to provide precise objects that can stand up to conditions that plastics and polymers would prematurely fail.
Pros and Cons of 3D Printing Metal
Now that you have an idea about how 3D printing metal works and what you can really do with this technology, let’s look at some of the pros and cons. Like anything else in the world, there are both advantages and disadvantages to 3D printing metal, here are the biggest ones of each.
- Increased complexity in design — Being able to 3D print anything, including metal, offers the ability for far more complexity in design. As an additive manufacturing process, parts and pieces are created from scratch, from the ground up. This means that just about any intricate design can potentially be created.
- Easy to change the design and print something new — Since the design is all done using CAD, an experienced designer can quickly adjust aspects of the design in no time at all. This updated design can quickly be translated into code and provided to the printer without having to spend much time making changes.
- Potential for cost savings — Depending on the specific situations, 3D printing metal objects can save money. In typical manufacturing processes, the price gets cheaper per part for larger batches. For 3D printing, you can create a one-off item for far less.
- Small batch manufacturing is possible — With 3D printing, there isn’t really an assembly line and factory setup that makes large batch manufacturing more ideal, since each part is printed individually. This means that you can reap the benefits of small batch manufacturing without breaking the bank.
- Common designs can be produced faster with different manufacturing — While 3D printing metal is ideal for very complex designs, simple shapes and parts can be manufactured much faster using other processes that are in use today.
- Lower tolerances than other processes — Due to the additive process and the ways that the material is fused together, tolerances typically are not as tight as they might be in other manufacturing processes, especially something like CNC machining.
- Size of parts is limited — Although 3D printers have gotten bigger and bigger, there is still a limit on the size of the parts that can be created. After all, the parts can only be as big as the printable area of the printer itself, so big assemblies would require multiple smaller parts to be made separately and then assembled.
- Expensive upfront cost — It can be expensive to start 3D printing metal, with printers easily costing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. So if the printer is not going to be used very often or for much manufacturing, it might not be economically feasible to start 3F printing metal at all.