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The 3D printing sector is no stranger to growing pains, but it appears adulthood is approaching. In the last few years, 3D-printed parts have replaced traditional parts in everything from running shoes to cars. Hearing aids, dental guards, and prosthetic limbs are all produced using this technology. Homes are built using specialized 3D printing technology both domestically and abroad. To cope with pandemic supply shortages, it even aided in creating nose swabs, face masks, and critical care ventilators.

Now, we have reached a stage in 3D printing’s development where manufacturers can print with metals. This development allows manufacturers to go from design to complex metal parts faster and easier with more cost efficiency. 

What Is 3D Printing?

The first models of 3D printers for home usage were produced in 2010, but the technology was first developed in the mid-1980s. 3D printing was expected to start a revolution in which the 3D printer would become a staple in every home with the hope that people would start printing everything they needed.

Because the first 3D printer was too sluggish and pricey for the typical customer, the technology never caught on in mainstream society. The printers of the time were limited in the types of objects and shapes they could create. These limits led many people to think that 3D printing was never going anywhere, and while the possibility of 3D printing excited people’s imaginations, the subsequent expectations were never met.

However, now that technology has advanced, certain 3D printers have been successful, especially among manufacturers. They find 3D printing useful for simple and quick prototyping. This use case for 3D printing will become even more common once the techniques for making metal parts become cheaper and faster.

How Does 3D Metal Printing Work?

Metal 3D printing is accomplished by focusing a laser onto a thin layer of metal powder, which melts it, and then welding it to the layer below. The layers build up, and the item grows as the digital design takes shape. While this is not the only metal 3D printing method, it is the main process used in manufacturing.

Metal 3D printing offers up new performance possibilities for technical parts in particular. Any unique shape, such as holes, threads, texturing, or connecting parts, can be “built into” the part and printed directly. The entire lead time to manufacturing the finished product can be reduced by weeks.

Additionally, the process of creating the molds or tooling needed to make the final components for injection molding can be expensive and take weeks or even months to complete. With metal 3D printing, this process may be entirely skipped, bringing new levels of efficiency from both a time and a cost standpoint.

Types of 3D Metal Printing

Metal Binding

A glue-like substance is applied to each thin layer of metal powder when using metal binding. The structure takes shape as the alternating layers of glue and powder start to come together. It can take several hours to complete the design with this technique.

The leftover metal powder utilized to support the construction is separated when finished, and the completed product is placed in an oven set at 350 degrees for 34 hours to eliminate any remaining liquid and solidify the binding.

Powder Bed Fusion

Powder bed fusion is like metal binding, except instead of adhesive, it uses an energy source such as a laser. The laser heats the metal powder in the design, which is then fused and formed into a solid layer. The process repeats until the completion of the entire design.

Directed Energy Deposition

This technique uses a metal wire or metal powder. Until completion of the design, a nozzle shoots out metal wire or powder in multiple directions. Once finished, a laser or electron beam melts it. This procedure can also create brand-new objects from scratch and fix damaged metal artifacts.

The Business Case for 3D Metal Printing

The promise surrounding 3D metal printing has many real-world economic advantages. Applications for 3D metal printing have expanded as a result of the technology’s tremendous development, and its benefit to businesses’ bottom lines has become evident in three ways:

  1. Bringing products to market faster. Reducing the length of the product development cycle with a 3D metal printing procedure helps organizations increase income. Organizations can quickly and economically prototype functional products using a metal 3D printer. With a finalized design, this technology can assist in creating tools, fixtures, and other elements to generate parts quicker.
  2. Conformal cooling reduces time and increases productivity. With conformal cooling in plastic injection molds, cycle times can be reduced by anywhere from 10-40%. Conformal cooling solutions also significantly reduce the total cost of production.
  3. Metal additive manufacturing was designed to consolidate the machining process. Instead of using multiple machines to build and finish a part, metal 3D printing brings all of the necessary processes into one. 

For instance, applications in the aerospace industry highlight the possibilities that 3D metal printing brings to a field constantly in demand. Well-known examples include fuel nozzles that have been altered and improved for performance (more lightweight and enhanced durability).

But it goes further than that. Metal 3D printing offers new production opportunities with considerable improvements that enable value creation (innovation and distinction) and value capture, allowing designers and engineers to optimize existing manufacturing operations (optimization and efficiency in time and cost).

The application advantages of metal additive manufacturing can be seen across a wide array of industries and companies, including GE (aerospace), Volkswagen (automotive), Cobra Golf (consumer products), and Parmatech (manufacturing).

How Affordable Is 3D Metal Printing?

While the price of printers has decreased as more advanced models become available, they still require a sizable investment.

That said, they can still be a wise investment, even—or especially—for a small business wanting to launch a new product. With the ability to create more iterations of prototypes and products faster, consolidate the machining process, and bring products to market faster, small businesses can greatly benefit from additive manufacturing. 

As engineers understand how to design for 3D printing in manufacturing and gain confidence in the performance characteristics of 3D output, the use cases begin to expand.