3D printing started, and is best known for, printing plastic in all sorts of shapes. Plastic objects have many versatile uses, but they also can’t hold up to heat and other stresses as well as metals. But can you 3D print metal?
Yes, actually, you can 3D print metal!
We usually think of metal objects as being cast, where liquid metal is poured into a mold and carefully cooled to form the desired object, or machined, where the material is taken away to get the right shape. Metal is, after all, very hard and only really malleable at high temperatures, which causes issues from safety to equipment functionality to ensure the proper shape holds during the cooling process.
Developments in 3D printing have made 3D printed metal objects more and more common. The combination of the metal’s properties and 3D printing’s capabilities spurred engineers to find ways to overcome the many challenges combining the two presented.
Metal is 3D printed in one of several ways:
- Metal binder jetting- The 3D printer rolls out thin metal powder layers and a glue-like binder is layered on top of each. These layers then fuse. Sometimes, an overhead heater is used to dry and fuse better. Non-fused metal powder is used as the support structure and breaks away once the product is complete. This is a long process that takes several hours. After it is done, the product will need to be finished in a curing oven, as it is initially porous and fragile. After it’s cured, the product is usually filled with another substance to strengthen it to a point where it can be used as a functional product.
- Powder bed fusion- While similar to metal binder jetting, in this case, no binder is used to fuse the metal powder layers. Instead, an electron beam or high energy laser is used. There are several methods of metal 3D printing that fall under this category, including selective laser sintering (SLS), selective laser melting (SLM), direct metal laser sintering (DMSL), and electron beam melting (EBM). Powder bed fusion still requires finishing, but it works better for certain alloys and can produce stronger objects.
- Directed energy deposition- The printer moves nozzle that deposits metal powder or metal wire in the selected shape. A laser or electron beam follows it to melt and fuze the metal. This method is more often used to repair or maintain existing objects, it can be used to build new ones as well.
3D metal printing requires specialized equipment that operates at high temperatures, so it is not likely to be something you can do easily at home for some time (though engineers are working on it). There are a lot of merits to 3D printing metal, though. 3D printing metal does not require support structures like machining does, allowing for more intricate, odd, and delicate designs. There are many applications already used for unique jewelry designs, but it is also possible to create lightweight yet strong parts with 3D printed metal. Major manufacturing companies are already starting to use 3D printed metal parts, especially in the aerospace industry.
At Jawstec, our expert team understands the ins and outs of 3D printing metal. We can provide you with all the info you need to create what you need, whether it’s a fully finished product or a prototype, and see the process through from design to print to finishing. Contact us today for your 3D print quote so we can help you learn how to best use 3D printed metal for your business or project.