When many people think of 3D printing, they think of it being done in plastic. However, advances in technology have made 3D printing viable in many useful materials, especially metal. Using metal, we can 3D print so many things that before had to be cast or machined, which comes with both financial and physical limitations.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Carl Deckard developed plastic laser sintering at the University of Texas, which set the stage for 3D printing with metal. Sintering is one of the most common methods for 3D printing metals, and only a few years after Dr. Deckard’s invention, in 1995, the first patent for 3D printing metal was filed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Since then, metal 3D printing has since grown to be one of the major drivers of the industry, especially after 2000.
3D printing with metal works very similarly to 3D printing other materials. It is possible to create complex geometric designs that are difficult, expensive, or even impossible to create using more traditional methods. The customizability of 3D printing in any material is almost infinite since everything is originally designed as a computer model. This means that it is possible to print parts that are no longer manufactured by their original supplier, opening up new avenues for keeping older, specialized equipment running, or even updating it to maximize efficiency.
Supply chains are also shortened by 3D printing. Instead of waiting on an order to be produced in a far-away factory and shipped to where it is needed, the exact required amount of products can be printed in a 3D printer within the same city or even facility. That printer can then be used for a different product from the same materials afterward.
3D printing metal does have limitations. Mass production is still a challenge and 3D printing has not caught up with machining, casting, and other methods, making it more viable for specialized, limited runs. 3D printed metal parts will always need thorough post-processing, which can include polishing, thermal treatments, and other techniques that need special equipment.
What metals can be 3D printed? Many different kinds, with more all the time. There has lately been a special focus on titanium 3D printing due to it being both very strong and very light, making it widely applicable, especially in the aerospace industry. Like all metals, titanium is 3D printed by taking a powdered form of the metal and sintering the desired product together layer by layer. Titanium in particular has distinct size limitations with 3D printing due to how its structure behaves sintered together. That said, titanium is currently the strongest material that can be 3D printed and you can expect to see engineers figure out how to work through and around 3D printing titanium limitations as the industry grows.
At Jawstec, we have had a lot of success with 3D printing in metal. Our passion for this fascinating and growing industry helps us keep track of and integrate the latest and greatest best practices from around the world. If you are looking to 3D print metal or any other material for your next project, let us know how we can help you today!