The 3D printing industry is rapidly transforming and this is more evident in the metal 3D printing segment. In 2016, the market for metal additive manufacturing reached $950 million. This figure is expected to increase seven fold by 2026. Competition is one of the reasons new technologies are arising at such breakneck speeds.
What is Metal 3D Printing?
Also referred to as Direct Metal Laser Sintering and Metal Additive Manufacturing, metal 3D printing is the process by which parts are manufactured by a laser fusing together high performance metals, layer by layer. The parts are produced directly from 3D CAD data. What’s more, these parts are lightweight, strong, and feature internal voids, tubes within tubes, and channels through sections.
Metal 3D printing is fast, accurate, and cost-effective way of producing one-off prototype components. The process is used to manufacture small series parts for testing purposes. In some cases, it can be used as final production components for use in various environments, without the need of money and time of conventional tooling.
Metal 3D Printing: The Applications
There are different industrial sectors that already use metal 3D printing for everyday objects. Some of these sectors include:
Medical and dental implants mainly because they can be adapted to the individual needs. After an MRI or CT scan, doctors can extract data, create a 3D file, and recreate a hip or knee implant.
Jewellery where manufacturers are switching from lost wax casting and resin 3D printing to direct metal 3D printing.
The aerospace industry is becoming dependent on metal 3D printing. Ge-AvioAero was the first to make components for the LEAP jet engine.
Automotive sector featuring Audi and BMW are considering Metal 3D printing not just for prototypes, but also for actual parts.
Metal 3D Printing: The Technologies
3D printed metal parts are as strong as traditionally manufactured metal components. Parts created with DMLS have similar mechanical properties as cast metal parts. Moreover, the porosity of the objects created by metal 3D printers can reach over 99% density, which is above industry standards.
The available metal 3D printing technologies include:
Power Bed Fusion
Power bed fusion is a process where an energy source like laser fuses with an atomized powder to create the layers of the objects. Eight major metal 3D printer producers use this technology in their machines.
Binder jetting involves forming the layers by gluing together the metal particles and later melting them in a high temperature kiln. The other approach is to mix the metal powder into a metal paste using a pneumatic extrusion 3D printer to form the 3D objects. After achieving the desired shape, the objects are sintered in a kiln.
Large industrial metal manufactures use two ways to deposit metal. One is called Laser Cladding or Directed Energy Deposition which uses a laser beam to fuse metal powder. The powder is then slowly released and deposited to make the layers of an object through the use of an industrial robotic arm.
Electronic Beam additive manufacturing is another way used in metal deposition. The process used a powerful electron beam to fuse a three millimetre thick titanium wire and the molten metal to shape them into large metal structures.
The Metals Used in 3D Printing
Titanium is a popular metal choice for 3D printing due to its versatility. Being light and strong, Titanium is used in binder jetting and powder bed fusion in the medical industry to make prosthetics and in the automotive/aerospace industry to make prototypes and parts.
Being one of the most affordable metals in 3D printing, stainless steel is very strong and can be used in different industries including the design/artistic applications. Steel alloy which contains nickel and cobalt is used mostly in industrial applications and has high elastic properties.
Aluminium’s versatility and lightness makes it one of the most popular metal for 3D printing. You’ll find aluminum based alloys used by different industries.
Primarily made of chrome and nickel, Inconel has a high temperature resistance and it’s used in the aerospace, chemical and oil industries.
Future of Metal 3D Printing
In-process monitoring is fast being adopted by metal 3D printer manufacturers to improve system productivity while maintaining part quality.
Speed and productivity are some technology issues surrounding the metal 3D printing. In years to come, the industry will try to introduce the fastest laser to the market systems.
In a few years, Metal 3D printing will become so common that you’ll barely remember how life was before the technology. In 2026, the industry is expected to grow by $40 billion.
The availability of cheaper 3D printers is expected to make metal additive manufacturing popular. With this, your company could benefit from metal 3D printing due to the reduced costs and its ability to save time and the environment.
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