Despite being around since the 1980s, metal 3D printing only started gaining popularity recently, becoming one of the hottest topics in the industry. Among the reasons that explain this increase in popularity, the most relevant one is a multi-industry effort to stop relying only on traditional manufacturing techniques for the production of metal parts. Therefore, large investments have fueled an increase in the intensity of R&D efforts in the field of metal 3D printing. As a result, metal additive manufacturing technologies are rapidly advancing and we see an explosion in the amount of new technologies being announced.
In fact, the evolution has been so significant that nowadays there are a plethora of options to 3D print high-quality metal parts. Nonetheless, engineers, designers and product owners interested in implementing this manufacturing technique into their production process still have doubts and questions about it.
At Beamler, we often receive questions of users wondering whether it is worth to invest a substantial amount of money to replace traditional machines with 3D printers. Indeed the prices are still relatively high and acquiring a metal 3D printer only to overcome the design limitations and restrictions of traditional techniques may not be the best move yet. However, acquiring a metal 3D printer is not the only mean to get started with this production technique. A particularly interesting alternative is to start printing metal parts – at a tiny fraction of the cost – through 3D printing services.
What are the advantages of metal 3D printing in comparison to other techniques?
Metal 3D printing has become a continuous trend in the industry. Its main advantage lies in a continuous expansion in the range of metals, alloys and metallic composites which can be produced in this technology. Currently available 3D printing materials enable to manufacturers to produce parts of any desired mechanical and chemical properties. However, there are a couple of other benefits of producing metal parts of with 3D printing instead of traditional technologies.
Reduction in lead times
First of all, the most well-known advantage of additive manufacturing is a faster transition from the design stage to the production of the final part. Most of the time is saved due to instrumentation matter. Usualy no specific tools or machining devices are required to process the part after it is 3D printed. The operator only needs to remove elements such as support structures, created during printing process. This allows to significantly decrease the post-processing time. There is no need to tool the part using milling or turning in order to adjust its shape. Machining, previously necessary to create holes or add other connecting elements is not necessary anymore either. Therefore, 3D printing of metal parts translates into shortening lead times to days instead of weeks.
Production of large series of the same elements using injection molding may be financially reasonable. However, first the molds need to be manufactured and then the speed of production line and the whole factory must be optimized. As a result, getting the first part may happen after 15 to 60 days, whereas in case of 3D printing – lead time may reduce to just 2 or 3 days.
Cost advantages through the reduction of material waste
Another advantage resulting from producing metal with additive manufacturing is reduction in material waste. In metal 3D printing, raw material is added and formed layer by layer, rather than subtracted or cut out of a bulk solid figure. Therefore, the material is placed only where it is needed and the cost of the primary material used to produce one component is reduced. That makes 3D printing a resource-efficient technology.
Besides, parts redesigned for 3D printing can achieve a final mass equal to ¼ of the weight of the previous version. It may be beneficial for automotive and aerospace applications.
New approach to design
Looking at metal parts from a designer perspective, 3D printing technologies allow for the production of unique and complex structures. Traditionally, some elements which can not be casted need to be added to the element in post-production. For instance, adding the holes and threads requires machining the part after removing it from the mold. That increases the time and effort needed to manufacture a desired shape. On account of additive manufacturing, complexity of the part does not generate additional costs. Where it was previously necessary to use several separate parts within a twisted or welded structure, now just one part is required. And it can be manufactured as a single piece.
How does the application of metal 3D printing rebound on business performance?
Taking into consideration one of our actual business cases, a few major advantages of additive manufacturing of metals can be mentioned. A manifold, which is a pipe for fluidic applications, branching into several different openings, was produced much faster and uncomplicated.
As a result, time of production of this element also reduced. For conventional technologies, one part used to be manufactured within 2 hours. In case of additive manufacturing – you just need 6 hours to make 20 parts.
According to the researchers testing the prototype, mechanical performance of the part also improved. The fluid flow inside the pipes increased and there was a notable 90% reduction in vibrations. That is because in terms of geometry, there were no limitations in the design of the internal channels, so that the flow could be optimized.
As a result, the company noticed extra financial revenues from selling the improved machine. Producing some of the parts in metal 3D printing instead of conventional technologies allowed to make them very efficient, and therefore competitive on the market.
Are 3D printed metal parts suitable for my product?
Our partners specialize in developing high-performance metal 3D printing manufacturing systems, as well as high-quality metal powders enabling to produce parts for various industrial applications.
Technologies such as electron beam melting or selective laser melting allow to manufacture objects from metal powders, which are as good, if not better, than those made with conventional techniques. In addition, some of the 3D printing systems provided by our suppliers allow greater surface finish quality and less post-processing compared to traditional manufacturing.
Finally, it is possible to produce various amorphous, precious and refractory metals in additive manufacturing technology. In most of the cases 3D printing allows to save in time and costs, when compared to traditional methods.
When it comes to the materials provided by our suppliers, there are many interesting novelties which could replace metals commonly used in the industry. Some of the platinum alloys engineered for 3D printing exhibit significantly higher mechanical strength than the pure metal, and at the same time have a similar resistance to oxidation.
High-strength aluminum and titanium alloys but also customer-specific alloys may be chosen. That provides the possibility to customize the material properties in order to meet technical requirements of the particular project.