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What is metal 3D printing and are all metal 3D printers the same?

Is it possible to 3D print metal? What is metal 3D printing? How does it work? Are all metal 3D printers the same? The following covers the basics on metal AM, including powder bed fusion (PBF) where  Direct Metal Laser Sintering / Direct Metal Laser Melting ( DMLS / DMLM), Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Selective Laser Melting (SLM) are a subset, of which how these relate to advantages and limitations compared to other options.

What is metal 3D printing?

What 3D printing process can be used to 3D print metals? Powder bed fusion holds the market share for metal 3D printers, at 54% according to Aniwaa in 2019. This is followed by Direct Energy Deposition at 16% and Material/ Binder jetting at 16%. Direct Metal Laser Melting and Selective Laser Melting are some of the metal 3D printing processes that fall under Powder Bed Fusion. Both technologies user a laser to scan and melts the metal powder to build a part layer by layer. Direct Metal Laser Sintering has the key difference where the powder is composed of materials with variable melting points that fuses together at elevated temperatures. 

Due to the market proliferation of these metal 3D printers and research done , it is no surprise the DMLM, SLM and DMLS is most used in industrial applications for the manufacture of repeatable, end-use engineering products.  Other technologies such as Laser Metal Deposition have advantages of one-off manufacturing and are priced accordingly or require significant post-processing to get to acceptable surface finishes and required tolerances.

3d Metal printer market Powder Bed Fusion leader

How does metal 3D printing work?

Additive Engineering utilises GE Additive Concept Laser machines. For Direct Metal Laser Melting, the build chamber is filled with inert gas to minimise oxidation and is heated to build temperatures. 

Read about how Air Liquide’s purity of Argon gas helps improve the quality of Additive Engineering’s metal 3D printed products for biocompatible applications in Manufacturer’s Monthly.

 

Watch how aerospace parts are 3D printed

The video courtesy of GE Aviation demonstrates how metal 3D printing works from a digital file to final product.

A recoater layers a thin layer of powdered metal across the build platform and laser scans the cross-section of the component, melting the particles together, the build platform moves downwards, the recoater layers metal powder again and the process is repeated until the metal part is fully built. 

Parts are usually orientated to be self-supporting. For overhanging sections, supporting anchors are added to hold part in place for print accuracy and minimise distortion that may occur with high temperatures. When the chamber cools, excess powder is removed, parts are heat treated with support to relieve residual stresses. The part and support structures are then removed from the build plate and further post-processed if required.


how Air Liquide’s purity of Argon gas helps improve the quality of Additive Engineering’s metal 3D printed products
Manufacturer’s Monthly features Additive Engineering and Air Liquide

Are all industrial metal 3D printing the same?

Not every metal printing 3D systems is created equal. To the undiscerning, all 3d metal printing solutions looks the same. However, there are specific technologies that have proven to be reliable in manufacturing medical parts and certified airworthy aerospace metal parts. Why should this matter especially for non medical or aerospace products? A key challenge with many 3D metal printing processes is repeatable consistency to become a manufacturing process. While all technologies can manufacture one-off parts (especially metal 3D printing filament processes), the ones that can manufactured consistent 3D printed metal parts are the well-researched, proven metal additive manufacturing processes that would be best suited to support traditional manufacturing as sustainable production solutions.

Process parameters of metal 3D printing technology is usually set by the machine manufacturer. However Additive Engineering has the ability to change digital metal process parameters for improved builds of complex geometry as well as enhancing mechanical properties of a 3D printed part. 3D printing metal parts have dimensional accuracy of approximately +/- 0.1mm.

3D metal printing technology options

There are many powder bed fusion technologies for metal 3D printing , of which Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM) or Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) have been around for as long as metal 3D printing has existed.

DMLM is an additive manufacturing process that uses lasers to melt ultra-thin layers of metal powder to build complex 3D objects. A CAD model generates a STL file which is then sliced with software to be uploaded to a machine to build the part one cross section layer at a time. The use of a laser fully melts sections in the layer of metal powder to form a complex part that is fine, 100% dense and homogenous. Parts build using DMLM have excellent mechanical properties and are comparable to wrought (forged) materials, high detail resolution and exceptional surface quality. The final metal parts require little, if any, finishing.

Metal 3D printing

What kind of metal 3D printing materials are there?

Certified metal materials for your applications

Titanium Ti6Al4V Grade 23 is biocompatible for medical implants and is also used in the manufacture of blades,  gearboxes and engine parts.

Inconel Nickel 718 has minimal deformation over time as load under maximum capacity is applied with extreme temperatures, and is used in electric car battery packs, manifolds,  heat exchangers, aviation tools and space components.

How strong is 3D printed metal? is 3D printing metal expensive? Whether you need a datasheet, budgetary guidance or guidance on what’s suitable for your application, Additive Engineering is here to help.


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Case Study

3D printing in metal for Space

Traditional antenna manufacturing consists of complex large and heavy systems which could lead to higher launch costs and inconsistent radio frequency (RF) performance at higher frequency bands. Utilising DMLM, Optisys consolidated 100 parts into one part, reducing leadtime from 11 to 2 months and reducing component weight by consolidating 100 parts into 1 part, reducing lead time from 11 months to 2 months, reducing weight by 95% and size by 80%.

Have a similar requirement for your project?


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3D printed Space component

Looking to buy a metal 3D printer and need some help?

Additive Engineering can help guide you on which 3D printer , 3D printing materials and 3D printing technology. The team has worked extensively with plastic and metal technologies. The team is also trained on different Powder Bed Fusion technologies including Direct Metal Laser Melting, Electron Beam Melting. Electron Beam Melting, for instance, has a much rougher surface finish although easier to print complex geometries without support structures, as shown in image of the dala horse.

 

To discuss your 3D printing requirements , contact Additive Engineering today .

Metal 3D printing without supports

Why use Additive Engineering’s 3D metal printing services?

Advanced manufacturing requires the use of innovative technology to improve products

 Additive Engineering is a member of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC). Our team is experienced in rapid prototyping, conventional manufacturing for production parts such as CNC machining, injection moulding, vacuum casting and a range of 3D printing / additive manufacturing technologies that have been tried and tested in aerospace airworthy parts as well as medical devices.

Whether your requirements involve one prototype, transitioning from traditional manufacturing processes or 3D printing a complex lattice structure, the Additive Engineering team has the expertise in both traditional manufacturing methods and additive manufacturing processes to advise on the optimal manufacturing method for your parts.

Lattice structure

Clean-room environment to meet industry standards

To meet the stringent requirements of both medical, electronics and aerospace customers, the facility set up is modelled to manufacture parts in a clean-room environment with the objective to meet the highest standards as required by industries.

Proven technology and designed for manufacturing

Additive Engineering utilises  industry proven 3D printers such as EOS and GE Concept Laser printers to 3D print repeatable products with high surface quality and outputs the finest part structures. The Additive Engineering team can assist you in improving design for additive manufacturing in complex components that are too difficult and costly to manufacture using subtractive manufacturing methods.

Simplified delivery for ready to use products

Drawing on our extensive knowledge in materials from GE to our industry experience in the medical industry, we combine design, simulation, additive manufacturing, heat treatment, testing, sterilisation and packaging to ensure the complete part is delivered, ready to be used.



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Capabilities

Design for manufacturability assistance
Additive manufacturing conducted in a clean-room environment
ISO9001:20-15 certified, client-audited to meet ISO13485 (medical devices) and manufacturing modelled to meet AS9100 standards
Powder to product traceability
Product inspections
Direct Metal Laser Melting in bio-compatible titanium Ti6Al4V, stainless steel, Aluminium, Copper, Inconel Nickel 718, Hastelloy, Cobalt Cr alloy, SLS in medical grade PA2200
Tamper-proof packaging
Sterilisation
Heat treatment
Hot isostatic pressing
CNC Machining
Polishing and full finishing
Tooling
Injection moulding
Vacuum casting
Our certified powders undergo stringent quality control to meet performance requirements. We offer mechanical data for material selection and an optimised design to manufacture process.

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