by Melissa Donovan
Three-dimensional (3D) printing or additive manufacturing (AM) is a cost-effective and efficient method to produce metal parts. Once only seen as effective when manufacturing smaller runs, today’s technologies are ready to manufacture at industrial levels. Aerospace, automotive, medical, jewelry, and consumer product buyers recognize the potential of 3D metal printing in their production practices. Reasons include design flexibility, reduced inventory, enhanced environmental impact, and supply chain sustainability.
Above: Example of a metal impeller printed using Prima Additive technology. Prima Additive’s product portfolio includes multiple laser technologies for metal 3D printing applications.
Growth in Metal Printing
Insight Partners’ latest research study, 3D Printing Metal Market Size, Industry Share, Trends and Forecast to 2028, finds that the global 3D printing metal market size is expected to grow from USD 4.5 billion in 2021 to more than USD 13 billion by 2028 at a compound annual growth rate of 16.5 percent between 2022 and 2028.
“The data supports an increased interest in metal 3D printing capabilities by multiple primes across various industries. Supply chain issues resulted in these primes searching for alternative solutions to source their parts from and alleviate the production challenges of enduring long lead times,” notes Chase D. Cox, VP, MELD Manufacturing Corporation.
Donghi Arturo, CEO, Sharebot, agrees, and explains that this is why the company concentrates its efforts on selective laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering, as these will be future disrupters.
Part of why 3D printing is increasingly used in metal parts production is more accessible education, creating more familiarity. “Businesses understand the potential benefits that using this technology could have on their production efficiency, environmental impact, and supply chain sustainability. 3D printing is cost competitive with traditional manufacturing methods and can be applied across a variety of industries. The use of 3D printing contributes to an overall healthier and more efficient global supply chain,” states Meaghan Ferris, global head of 3D metals go-to-market and business development, HP Personalization and 3D Printing.
According to Skyler Des Roches, head of customer experience, Rapidia Inc., metal 3D printing was originally reserved for high-value, niche industrial applications. “Metal manufacturing has been off limits to most people because it requires a lot of skill and knowledge to safely operate a milling machine, lathe, welder, or laser powder bed fusion machine. But, material extrusion style printing automates most of the skill and eliminates the safety concerns.”
For those utilizing conventional manufacturing methods, 3D printing presents greater flexibility. “The biggest advantage lies in the freedom of part design, which doesn’t depend on any tool or mold. A product is built up layer by layer from 3D CAD data. This reduces costs, resources, and time expenditure in many areas beyond just large series industrial production. Prototypes are built quickly and cost efficiently. End products for individual or series production can be flexible and made on demand,” shares Jenna Phillips, marketing specialist, EOS North America.
Mark Norfolk, president, Fabrisonic LLC, also notes increased interest thanks to design flexibility. “Solid-state metal processes like ultrasonic additive manufacturing (UAM) extend design freedom further. With UAM, designers and engineers have expanded material freedom by bonding dissimilar metals or embedding reinforcement materials or temperature-sensitive devices within a metal matrix.”
3D printing is “no longer a gimmick, it is now a viable manufacturing process, where it makes sense to deploy rather than forging, casting, machining, or injection molding. Advantages include improved designs, reduced part count, shortened lead time, and better use of materials. AM has even encouraged the development of new materials, including those previously considered ‘un-weldable’ by conventional methods,” notes Dr. Eliana Fu, industry manager: aerospace and medical, TRUMPF Inc.
Despite movement in the space, there “is still a general lack of awareness and education about 3D metal printing and how it can help manufacturers overcome their biggest challenges,” according to Blake Teipel, Ph.D., CEO, Essentium.
“Compared to three years ago, there is a significant uptick in companies taking AM more seriously. The truth is that only few understand the scale of investment needed to understand the technology. We’re still at the beginning of a journey,” asserts Andre Wegner, CEO, Authentise.
Multiple industries benefit from 3D metal printing. While aerospace and automotive are some of the earliest adopters, today’s users include consumer, medical, and even art and jewelry.
“3D printing improves overall efficiency by allowing manufacturers to maintain ideal inventory levels. Second, they can reduce the time and money it once took to transport parts, thus tightening the supply chain. Finally, they can greatly speed time to parts,” explains Teipel.
Any business 3D printing customized components at point of need understands the aforementioned advantages. “These include aerospace and defense, automotive, and electronics manufacturing—all benefitting from the ability to 3D print service parts, manufacturing aids, and tooling jigs. For instance, an aircraft may require specific tools that often have to be custom made. With AM, printing those tools on demand is now possible,” continues Teipel.
In metal 3D printing, the clearest answer is industries that benefit from part geometries that are impossible to machine, says Des Roches. “Typically, that means complex internal shapes for fluid flow—maybe cooling channels in an injection mold, manifolds, rocket engines, or fluid diffusors. In metal 3D printing, that means tool and die manufacturers, aerospace, and the energy sector.”
Norfolk believes that “industries competing in highly competitive markets and that need to rethink their product design to optimize material use by combining dissimilar metals to optimize SWaP, displace a problematic metal joining manufacturing process, embed temperature-sensitive devices, or all three benefit the most from UAM. Those companies are typically in the aerospace and automotive industries.”
Aerospace, space, ground vehicles, and naval industries are MELD’s primary customers. MELD technology makes the material malleable without melting. As an example, MELD was tasked with manufacturing a tank hatch. This tank hatch would have a traditional manufacturing lead time of one-and-a-half years. Using the MELD process, the near net shape geometry was printed in 30 hours and weighed 800 lbs. The final part geometry was then machined out from the near net shape.
“Industries that are adopting AM most widely now are lower volume, higher value industries like medical and aerospace. There is a very high willingness to pay for performance and/or customization in these industries, which plays perfectly into 3D printing’s strengths,” says Matt Sand, president/co-founder, 3DEO.
Daniele Grosso, marketing manager, Prima Additive S.r.l. believes growth in 3D metal printing is driven by aerospace, “an industry in the last year that equipped itself with increasingly large systems and gave great ideas from the point of view of process optimization to machine manufacturers.”
There is also the automotive sector. “The electrification of vehicles leads to ever heavier cars and additive will prove to be a great ally in their lightening, with a trajectory that will start from motorsport to move later towards mass production. Finally, we must not overlook the biomedical, jewelry, and all those sectors that need to work with highly reflective materials, which opens important use cases for the use of laser sources other than infrared, such as green lasers and blue lasers,” continues Grosso.
“Any industry can benefit from metal 3D printing, but only where it makes sense,” cautions Fu. Automotive, aerospace, military, space exploration, medical, dental, and art/jewelry and consumer segments benefit from designs with thin walls, intricate features, or steep overhangs unable to be produced with traditional methods.
A range of materials are 3D printed including stainless steel; alloys like nickel-based, aluminum, titanium, and copper; refractories; and precious metals.
Everything in AM is market driven, according Dr. Rashid Miraj, director of technical operations, AlphaSTAR Technology Solutions. “Choice of metals, processes, and applications must have the potential of improving efficiency, reducing waste, increasing quality, and making or saving more money. Accordingly, the herd seeks to explore metals and processes that have an established record before venturing out to more exotic options.”
Popular metals are titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel, according to Sand. “Titanium is used in aerospace and medical, and stainless steel is seen in a range of industries. Engineers and manufacturers need metal for more demanding applications than plastics, such as air frames, implants, and end effectors on surgical robotics.”
Stainless steel metals are widely used because they are alloys that cover a range of needs and are less reactive than other metals, according to Des Roches. “This also makes sense if you look around to the products we interact with daily; steel alloys are really a workhorse material, in cars, buildings, roads, and appliances. More reactive metals, such as aluminum and titanium alloys, are quite dangerous in loose powder form, so tend to be reserved for specific applications.”
While the aforementioned are metals that have always had a presence in 3D printing, there is consistent growth in demand for pure copper applications and precious metals such as gold or silver alloys, says Grosso.
“In my opinion all metals that are hard to process—due to hardness or abrasive behavior—in a conventional process benefit the most from AM,” says Florian Rapp, head of development, Multec GmbH.
Fabrisonic UAM has made significant contributions within the aerospace and automotive industries, optimizing SWaP, which means it routinely welds aerospace aluminum for strength/weight as well as copper alloys for thermal conductivity. “Recently the explosion of electrification applications led to growth in printing complex shapes from high-conductivity aluminums, nickels, and coppers,” adds Norfolk.
HP offers two stainless steel powders—HP Metal Jet SS 316L and HP Metal Jet SS 17-4PH. HP Metal Jet SS 316L provides resistance to corrosion and high temperatures. HP Metal Jet SS 17-4PH is a martensite precipitation hardening stainless steel, most frequently used in applications requiring high strength and mechanical properties with good corrosion and wear resistance.
At MELD, customers are interested in “unweldable” materials, primarily aluminums. “These materials cannot be processed at large scales in an open-air environment by other metal 3D printing technologies. Titanium is another material of interest. Customers use the MELD process to achieve forged equivalent properties in these materials,” explains Cox.
3D metal printing expands beyond its intentioned industries as new materials and processes are developed. In addition, more people are becoming educated about the advantages of 3D printing and how it can truly be a powerhouse in mass production.
“Through 3D printing capabilities and design freedom, engineers can do things that simply aren’t possible with traditional manufacturing. This unlocks new levels of performance and product functionality, and gives engineers a competitive edge across the development landscape,” notes Sand.
Apr2023, Industrial Print Magazine
<h2>3D, metal printing, AM, additive manufacturing<h2>