Given the optimism that metal AM will continue to grow in relevance for series production, it's natural to focus on future potential and skim over the present. However, that forward-looking mindset obscures the exciting developments already taking place in 3D metal printing. The technology as a tool to be used in full production runs is not some distant possibility. It's already here. 3DEO's president Matt Sand details five current examples of how metal AM is changing manufacturing at scale.
Metal fabrication does not lack for depth as an industry. No fewer than 6 distinct — and commonly used — techniques exist for the manufacture of metal pieces and parts in 2018. Each can be considered the “best” option given certain conditions. For this reason, it’s often tough for an organization looking to outsource a specific production run of components to decide just which method is right for them. The list of options is long, and it’s growing more nuanced by the day.
These five applications are proving that metal AM has a place in high volume production—and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
From machining to MIM, metal parts buyers have a wide range of options for addressing their part-production challenges. The key in choosing from among them is to remember that each technology brings something different to the table, and every part has unique requirements.
Production runs of small, intricate metal components have traditionally been addressed by metal injection molding or investment casting. Some manufacturers, however, are finding that advances in 3D printing technology can make it a cheaper and faster alternative.
The question of which manufacturing method is best suited to metal part production can be complicated. It’s not a decision that can be reached by weighing only a single factor. To arrive at the best decision, it’s important for businesses to consider many factors and prioritize.
Are fast lead times essential? Do the components have tensile, strength, or hardness requirements? Is surface finish a major consideration? While it’s important for businesses to weigh various priorities, the final cost-per-part (within quality specifications) is often the deciding factor in which technique wins out.
No matter how you slice it, the spike in industry-wide 3D printing revenues over the past 5 years has been impressive. A close look at that growth, however, reveals something interesting: it’s been disproportionately driven a small handful of vertical markets. Of these select markets, none has been as influential as MedTech. Metal-based additive manufacturing (AM), in particular, has proven to be perfectly suited to meet a number of needs in medical and dental device production.
Overview of Material Jetting in Metal 3D Printing
Material Jetting is relatively new and similar to binder jetting, with one key difference -- instead of a binder being jetted through the printhead, a metallic material is jetted. This material is jetted onto the build tray directly using either a continuous jetting or Drop on Demand (DOD) process. The jetted metal is deposited on the build tray in the cross section of the part for that layer. This process continues as it builds up layer after layer. The resulting part still needs to be sintered in a furnace to achieve final part density. Previously, material jetting was limited to plastics and polymers, but recent advances have seen new companies attempting to commercialize the process for metals. XJet currently shows the most promise for material jetting with its patented NanoParticle Jetting technology and recently shipped its first commercial machine to a customer.
Overview of Directed Energy Deposition in Metal AM
Directed Energy Deposition (DED) is an additive manufacturing process where metal wire or powder is combined with an energy source to deposit material onto a build tray or an existing part directly. Parts chosen for DED are typically large without the need for tight tolerances. DED methods are capable of building very large parts and are popular because of the rapid deposition speed. Because it closely resembles welding, DED is commonly used to repair and maintain existing parts. DED machines usually mount a nozzle on a multi-axis arm, which then deposits the metal feedstock to the surface. When used with 5 or 6 axis machines, the material can be deposited from nearly any angle and is melted upon deposition with a laser or electron beam. This process means DED can be used to build objects very quickly and is only limited in size by the reach of the robotic arm.
Overview of Metal Extrusion for 3D Printing
Metal extrusion in additive manufacturing is a fairly new process. Similar to the wildly popular plastic-based FDM process, filament is heated and drawn through a nozzle and then deposited layer-by-layer. This filament is a combination of thermoplastic material and metallic particles. The nozzle moves in the x and y axes across the part for a given layer. The build platform then lowers to make room for new layers. After the part is complete, it is placed into a sintering furnace to burn out the remaining plastic and sinter the metal particles together. Extrusion-based additive manufacturing has been widely used for plastics and polymers, but only recently has developed to create metal parts.
Overview of Binder Jetting
Binder Jetting is a powder bed process that utilizes inkjet technology and a binding agent. The liquid binder is used to “glue” the metal powder together within and between layers. A layer of metal powder is first rolled onto the build tray, and then an inkjet print head moves along the x and y axes and deposits binder in the shape of the part for each respective layer. After each layer is created, the build platform is lowered incrementally to make room for the next layer. The part being printed is supported within the powder bed by the unbound powder, which is then removed to complete the process. The result is a “green part” which then needs to be placed in a sintering furnace to achieve final part density.