Metal 3D Printing Basics: Material, Costs, Applications, FAQ

There are so many benefits to 3D printing that many people now use it for their engineering company, library, hobby, or personal business. You can print with a variety of materials, but a great add-on to the world of 3D printing is the platform of metal 3D printing.

As of late, regular 3D printers can now work with metals such as copper and bronze. There has even been evidence that metal 3D printers can work with stainless steel. A basic 3D metal print can create 250 x 150 x 150 mm but industrial models are even helping in automation and mechanical assemblies.

There is an informative array of topics regarding 3D metal printing from overseeing general costs, what sizes metal 3D printing produces if someone can use metal filaments inside the printers, as well as debunking misconceptions regarding metal 3D printing.

Lastly, there will be a short interview with a 3D metal printer professional. There’s a lot to cover but it is well worth the read!

Can 3D Printers Print Metal?

Many 3D printers use resin or filaments to print their designs, but the range of potential materials is expanding.

The Virtual Foundry has created a way for 3D printing to be done with glass and ceramic products without the need to upgrade a current 3D printer most people would have. The big question is wondering how it all works.

The usual combination is highly infused plastic (about 11.5%) along with a mass of 88.5% metal powder for prints to be polished and post-processed to remove bits of plastic. This results in the product being pure metal. The Virtual Foundry is still striving to improve the process so that little as 8% of plastic is found in finished metal products.

It is said that materials will be accounted to large portions when reaching near-term products in 3D printing as Virtual Foundry hopes to offer immediate answers in continuing to produce real metal printing products to be useful from the medical field to construction.

The best part? You can still accomplish all this with a common desktop 3D printer, rivaling any commercial machines.

Consumer printers offer a compromise in price to promise a greater resolution with a quicker speed. The addition of metallic filament with the 3D printer meant that they are suddenly able to produce copper and bronze products without a kiln.

You don’t have to wait for 48 hours to have your metal print complete as one would see with commercial machines. Instead, your print could take as little as five hours to produce, making costs cheaper and results faster. Source

What Can You Do With 3D Metal Printing?

Much like how a 3D printer is designed to create figures, plastic parts, etc. metal 3D printing assists with the manufacturing of legacy parts, line automation tools, and functional cast prototypes to name a few uses. This greatly benefits those who use geometric models as the freedom to add features in a shorter span of time.

There is also the benefit of full automation where metal 3D printers require minimal operator time. The software can automatically create tool paths from configurable settings without the need for previous manufacturing when working with the new material. You create the selections and set up the template then the 3D printing takes care of the rest.

Lastly, the minimal tooling setup makes traditional 3D printing methods such as milling, molding, turning, for custom tooling or mold-making, becomes easier with metal 3D printers as they can make extra machine work so all you have to do is click the print button! Source

What Does 3D Metal Printing Help With?

Using 3D metal printing mainly helps with simplifying assemblies, optimized geometries, and digital inventory/legacy parts. By having assemblies simplified, consolidation has the capability to work with more complex requested geometries. In the past, the separate parts have been split up into different time segments because of the current design constraints in manufacturing.

Therefore the design space for additional manufacturing becomes different than the traditional way to print with the ability to plan out how much material is needed for making a part than having to take more away for another printer to handle. Using a metal 3D printer’s cloud-based fleet system helps the user manage the design requested and produce the parts no matter where the 3D printer is located. Source

Can I Use Metal Filament Inside A 3D Printer?

The short answer is yes! Much like wood filaments, metal filaments are made of ground materials with PLA along with a polymer to bind everything for printing. This means that when the final product is printed, it’ll feel exactly how actual metal feels. Materials that are currently available are stainless steel, bronze, copper, steel, and brass as the metal filaments can’t be heavier than solid metals.

For example, if someone made a brass figure it would be lighter than an actual brass figure because the metal particles are bound by PLA and glue. Source

Though there are plenty of benefits when printing with metal filaments such as having low barriers to enter, lower energy consumption, having overall low hardware costs, and easy use for owners.

Mature technology like FFF helps out with hardware flexibility in customizing products and provides a safer approach by having no chemicals printing or binding. Source.

Other perks include having the metallic features finished with the appeal of creating an aesthetic product, not needing a high temperature to extrude, and being heavier than other filaments.

The cons, however, are having to require a wear-resistant nozzle, being aware that printed parts can be very brittle, and having clogs, while overall being relatively expensive to manufacture.

With the presence of metal powder, the filament becomes heavier than standard plastic molds. Printing with PLA filled with metal will weigh more no matter what despite settings being imputed the same and consuming the same amount of materials. Filaments that are metal-filled can be abrasive and extrude through hot ends.

It’s important to upgrade new nozzles to print efficiently as standard brass nozzles can become too soft and wear down faster. There are similar metal filaments on the market for metallic coloring being able to be added to the previous filament that contains no metallic powder.

While it doesn’t share the same previously mentioned benefits it will be able to create materials containing real metal powders for a better metallic weight/feel. Source

What Are The Costs Of 3D Metal Printing?

When it comes to the price, it all depends on what you’re looking for. Depending on your preference of machinery, the company’s precision, capabilities, and limitations, all play factors in what you should get.

Other components such as how the 3D printer is power operated by cooling fans, heated ends, stepper motors, and the heated platform for building.

Some Average Costs Are As Follows:

  • Selective Laser Melting/Direct Metal Laser Sintering (traditional metal printing parts): A single part costs around $500
  • A complete desktop with a studio metal printing system (the 3D printer, debinding station, sintering station) costs around $100,000-$150,000.
  • Specialized metal powders can be around $400/kg

For more information on in-house metal manufacturing costs and outsourcing manufacturing costs, visit this source.

Recent rising prices for 3D printing use are because simple technology is used in appliances with different fields of work. With having higher entry costs during early development, both 3D printer models and materials were expensive.

With the recent improvements from various technology, the machines and materials are thankfully going down in price as 3D printing becomes more accessible and reasonable for company budgets. Source

Schools and small businesses would need machines that use FDM technology or fused deposition modeling, like MakerBot’s Replicator+, Z18, or Method. FDM machines can use 3D materials like PLA and ABS which are poly-lactic acid and acrylamide butane styrene, both of which are thermoplastics.

Thermoplastics work with the printer by heating the product to be soft with a flexible molding capability. Once the material can solidify, the overall form is able to cool off.

This makes PLA advantageous when compared to ABS.  PLA can demonstrate less warping/curling and prints without the need for a heated building plate. 

Having efficient filament storage is important when saving on costs when properly storing filament to preserve it or ruining the entire spool of material. The 3D printed model needs to be the size requested and if it can work with the same purpose on a smaller scale this saves on material as well as hollowing the inside out of the material’s design.

If you can reduce the percentage of infill whenever possible this saves material too and the product finishes quicker.

Source

General FAQ On 3D Metal Printing

Why is 3D metal printing so expensive?

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is the technology that revolutionized metal parts being able to be created from metal 3D printing. To replace the traditional route, technology needs to keep up the competitive streaks. Process variants exist when 3D printing with metal and systems can diverge when building with raw materials.

This means that while different methods can provide different solutions for companies, the cost of producing metal parts varies depending on the technique being worked with and the complexity of the project. In general, your main costs for metal 3D printing are going to come from the machine you’re using overall.

Your printing machine is going to take in 40% raw material which takes up 25% of the overall cost with the result of 15% in labor costs. The post-processing and preparation for each product should be considered.

Raw materials used a common method called “gas atomization.” The metal melts before being placed in the molten material being passed through the nozzle as high-velocity air breaks flow. Droplets rapidly create and solidify powder which results in high temperatures and advanced technology requirements. 

Luckily, there is a chance that new powder providers will lower the cost as more entries are made on the market. There are also metal 3D printing processes that start with the design of the product first that follows the designs specifically for AM using software called Generative Design.

Auto-desk Generative Design is used to create optimized designs with managing time costs and licensing costs of software making the 3D printed part financially increase.

Source

What are the typical build sizes for a metal 3D printing system?

You’ll be looking at an average build of 250 x 150 x 150 mm though larger machines can build to 500 x 280 x 360 mm. Though this is considering the accuracy of the metal 3D printer with dimensions to achieve approximately ± 0.1 mm. Source

How strong are metal 3D prints?

With the design of computer-controlled methods to make layers of stainless steel, tightly controlled structures of material can be made from nanoscales to micron scales. This also helps a 3D metal printer to build cell wall structures to prevent fractures in the finished product.

When tests were conducted, the end result was the 3D printed stainless steel became 3x stronger than conventionally made stainless steel. Companies like Sculpteo, created metallic powder mainly composed of 66-70% iron, 16-18% chrome, 11-14% nickel, and 2-3% molybdenum to make the resulting metal material having strong corrosion resistance.

This is a victory when producing parts needed in the medical field with endoscopic and orthopedic surgery. Though this material can also help when creating watches and jewelry products. Source

How is this done?

In order to achieve a strong metal 3D print, the setup starts as a powder layer of alloy metal particles on a flat surface. The computer controls the high-power laser beam back and forth across the surface for particles to be hit and melt for a fusing result. The surface drops down and another layer of powder is repeated with the heating cycle. Having repeated this process helps engines to create rocket ship engines. Source

Debunking 3D Metal Printing Misconceptions

1. Metal 3D printing is too expensive

While yes some metal AM systems can cost millions of dollars, there are options to make metal projects with 3D printers below $200k. Examples of this are companies like Xact Metal, Laser Melting Invocations, and One Click Metal who specialize in metal powder beds being a fusion with technology. Metal X and Studio System have possibilities with metal 3D printing with lower prices under $200k to make office finances easier.

2. Metal AM systems are similar to each other

There are actually five key metal 3D printing technologies with different requirements and function uses. With 3D printers taking on metal powder beds like Power Bed Fusion, several techniques are used the same like fusing layer upon layers but the take on the technology is different with several different takes on how to perform the task.

VELO3D is one of these as the powder bed fusion 3D printer has a recoating mechanism for tightly integrated methods with the software. The system is then provided with printing metal parts with no supporting structures. For more different guides on metal 3D printing check the Definitive Guide to Metal 3D printing.

3. Conventional metal parts are inferior to metal 3D printed parts

Manufacturers are not sure if the quality is the same for both conventional parts and metal 3D printed parts due to the misconception of metal 3D printing metal overall. Though technology has been proven to handle the quality of 3D-printed parts.

This results in either being able to become equal or exceed the normal procedure of manufactured parts. By seeing the results of metal AM parts in rocket engines, turbine parts, and heat exchanges, the quality metal can achieve the tasks required of it.

4. Metal powder reduces overall results on material properties

Multiple studies have been done on how recycling metal power with proper controls has both no effect on overall mechanical functions and enables laser-based PBF as an efficient AM process overall. A research was conducted by Stratasys Direct Manufacturing on how the impact of metal parts recycled on nickel-based superalloys.

Different parameters were used to determine different strengths of 3D printed parts which resulted in the recycled parts had very little influence on the temperature used on properties like Inconel 718 and 625. Source

My Interview With A Metal 3D Printer Manufacturer

I spoke with a gentleman named Rodger, who works for 3DX Industries which specializes in 3D metal printing.

The following is the mini-interview conducted:

What are the most common uses for this technology?

There are very versatile customer orders with bigger orders coming from places like medical, oil, and gas. We even receive orders for aircraft. When given a project, we receive designs of what to make or even pictures.

In medical orders, we make parts used for education and training, and in oil and gas, we make parts or tools.

What is there to know about the product development of 3D metal printing?

A knowledge of DFAM* for manufacturing parts of metal. In the past, if a part was too expensive for the machine to produce, the overall project was botched. Nowadays with metal 3D printing, there is more freedom on how to design a project and being worry-free of other manufacturing difficulties.

*Design For Additive Manufacturing: designs to enable the ability to manufacture while applying additive manufacturing.

What kinds of companies are buying these printers?

For oil and gas, we’ve done work for the Halliburton Company and the restorations of cars which is popular work. With medical projects, we get orders from Pacific Research, Siemens Healthineers, and Saw Bones.