8 Metal 3D Printing Applications
Commercial use of metal 3D printing services has found deep acceptance in most high-value industries. Even complex customized metal parts are relatively simple to produce.
There are multiple ways to 3D print metal items. The most established of these is known as powder bed fusion (PBF). This umbrella term includes: electron beam melting (EBM), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and selective laser sintering (SLS), among others. Each technique melts or fuses metal powder layer by layer in an otherwise loose powder bed. A more recent technology is direct energy deposition (DED), which directly applies metal powder (DED powder) or wire feedstock (DED wire) through nozzles. A third approach is binder jetting, which bonds the powder bed with an adhesive that is later burned out in a sinter post-processing step, leaving behind only the solidified metal. An increasingly common approach is to use fused filament fabrication or fused deposition modeling (FFF/FDM) to print parts from polymer-bound metal powders which are then sintered to make high-density, full-strength metal components.
These processes offer advantages such as: design flexibility, minimal waste, and the ability to create geometrically complex and lightweight structures. While they’re powerful technologies, strict quality control and monitoring of material integrity are critical. Listed below are eight common metal 3D printing applications:
Metal 3D printing has brought a quiet revolution to the manufacture of custom tools in many industry sectors. You can quickly and easily integrate multiple functions, simplify awkward tasks, and improve production and maintenance functions by 3D printing tools. In sectors as diverse as jet engine maintenance and surgical instruments, metal 3D-printed custom tools offer advantages like: enhanced capability, improved productivity, and reduced costs. The range of applications is growing exponentially as prices and availability improve.
3D-printed metal end-of-arm tooling (EoAT) is an increasingly widespread and valuable application of metal additive manufacturing. EoAT is the generic description of the specialized attachments, actuators, or tooling at the end of a robot’s actuators/arms. These tools are designed to interact with and manipulate objects. EoAT can contain sensors, cameras, and other application-specific equipment, allowing automated functions to interface with the real world.
3D-printed metal EoAT devices are crucial in sectors like manufacturing, surgery, and orbital maintenance, where robots and automation have become increasingly important. It’s easier and quicker to adapt printed tools to rapidly evolving tasks. And it can be done in a streamlined, efficient, and cost-effective manner.
Metal 3D printing is an ideal method for producing small numbers of specialty parts across a wide range of industries. Sectors as varied as race engineering, satellite development, antique restoration, and medical tools all benefit from metal additive manufacturing processes. Custom parts solve an extraordinarily diverse range of urgent and cost-sensitive needs.
Metal 3D printing is precise, gives you significant design freedom, and simplifies logistics. even with small production volumes. It empowers manufacturers and designers to use exotic designs that simplify assembly needs.
Metal 3D printing has been a boon for spinal injury treatment, joint prostheses, trauma reconstruction, and dental implants/bridges. The ability to make complex and customized geometries in biocompatible materials accelerates the preparation for treatment. Not only do the implants fit better, but implantation surgeries go quicker because doctors don’t need to spend as much time adapting parts for the patient’s body. Another benefit is for soft tissue or bone integration. Tissues can grow into and integrate with porous implant structures. Metal 3D printing integrates directly into digital workflows that start with medical 3D scans like magnetic resonance imaging. Scans feed patient data into precision processes that can directly initiate production.
Surgical and dental implants produced via metal 3D printing deliver better patient outcomes, surgery times, and patient-unique solutions than other methods. This sequence of technologies is revolutionizing the medical and dental implant fields with patient-centric solutions.
Metal 3D printing is beginning to impact the fields of jewelry and decorative arts. Artists can design unique, intricate, and personalized pieces. It is now possible to produce perfect, unique, complex, and precise objects in fast and repeatable ways that cost less than a skilled hands-on process to manufacture. It all amounts to minimal material waste, wider material selection, less design reinterpretation, and low costs. Beyond pure commercial interests, metal 3D printing is now also employed to replicate historical artifacts or restore damaged items with great precision.
When dissimilar components and devices must be affixed to one another, you often need specialty brackets. They can take the form of simple shelf brackets, mounting points on the International Space Station, spinal surgery joinery, and many other items. Whether the focus is on production speed, complexity, or strength, if customization is the goal, then 3D-printed parts are becoming the go-to option.
3D printing of metal parts is particularly important in the making of small functional prototypes. They cover everything from race-car control linkages to prosthetic hand gearbox parts, and furniture joints to robotic grippers. This “instant metal” technique presents great potential to accelerate the product development and testing process.
While dimensional precision for small parts can be good, printed surface finishes are often coarse. Post-machining is commonly required for moving parts such as bearings and gear surfaces. The parts’ responses to wear depend on the printing process, so you must evaluate printing methods carefully before choosing one.
For larger functional parts, the economics of 3D printing are different. The cost of parts grows disproportionately with size. However, lower resolution and coarser processes can still generate usable parts where cost sensitivity is not the main driver.
Metal 3D-printed parts play a critical role in replacing or restoring parts. They’re often components for antique constructions like old firearms, cars, or aircraft.
Metal 3D printing has several overwhelming advantages, especially since the technology is getting more accessible. Here are a few examples:
- 3D printing allows you to make highly intricate and complex geometries that are difficult or even impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods.
- Designers have greater freedom to create innovative components, including lattice structures, internal channels, and lightweight parts that would otherwise be impossible to machine.
- This family of production processes allows for the manufacture of entirely custom and unique parts tailored to specific requirements. This is particularly significant in fields like: healthcare (custom implants), aerospace (intricate engine components), and automotive restorations (unique and obsolete parts).
- Printing facilitates quick and cost-effective prototyping, reducing development lead times and costs.
- Component weights can be adjusted using internal lattice structures, reducing weight where it adds no value, but doing so without compromising strength.
- An increasingly wide range of metals and alloys can be 3D printed, including: titanium, aluminum, stainless steel, bronze, and beryllium-copper.
- Complex assemblies can often be consolidated into single 3D-printed parts that wouldn’t be possible using any other methods. Driving complexity out of assemblies and into singular digitally manufactured parts can alleviate assembly struggles and improve end-product quality/performance
- On-demand manufacturing is a significant benefit in some contexts, reducing the need for large inventories and associated storage costs. As an example, it’s increasingly common for military repair facilities to print parts on-site.
- The ability to create parts constructively rather than subtractively enables you to optimize strength-to-weight ratios in ways that would be impossible otherwise.
- Metal 3D printing is a cost-effective way to produce small volumes of specialized components. Although the parts may be as expensive or more so than those from a subtractive process, the setup times and delivery schedules can be an overwhelming advantage.
- It is a largely toolless process, reducing setup costs.
Listed below are some disadvantages of metal 3D printing:
- Metal 3D printers, especially those capable of handling large parts or high precision, tend to have very high CAPEX and OPEX overheads. The initial investment cost in particular is a barrier for businesses with lower or inconsistent demand for such equipment.
- The raw materials used in metal 3D printing, such as metal powders or wire, are often considerably more expensive than CNC-compatible billet or plate materials.
- The selection of alloys is also limited. This is because the market is still relatively small and most specialist alloys are not produced in forms appropriate to the technology.
- Printed metal parts often require extensive post-processing, including heat treatment, surface finishing, and machining to meet precision and task-appropriate tolerances. These machining requirements can push the cost up to the same levels as subtractive CNC machining in some cases, dramatically altering the value proposition.
- While setup times are short and require limited specialist programming or equipment, metal 3D printing is slower per part than CNC machining and metal injection molding. In fact, sometimes it even takes longer than casting. Beyond certain production volumes, traditional methods become more cost-effective.
- Ensuring the quality and consistency of 3D-printed metal parts can be challenging, even for experts. Variations in printing parameters, layer adhesion, and porosity can require significant skill to identify and diagnose.
- The build volume of metal 3D printers can be limited. High-precision printers tend to be small.
- Metal 3D printing processes generally consume considerably more energy per part than their typical CNC equivalents.
- The metal powders used in 3D printing pose significant safety risks if not handled correctly. They are essentially nano-materials and can have serious health consequences if inhaled. The unused materials from the powder bed must also be post-processed to clean the powder and return it to a reusable condition.
- Operational labor overheads for metal 3D printers are high, requiring skilled and experienced technicians who will be able to troubleshoot issues effectively. These skills are not yet widespread.
The metal 3D printing industry is a dynamic sector with great room for growth. 3D printing technology can produce metal parts and components for a wide spectrum of applications. Companies increasingly want in-house printing capabilities. However, because printers and printing expertise are expensive, the equipment must be kept busy 24/7 to justify the investment. This has pushed industries to centralize their printing services to stay competitive. In-house users tend to either be cost-insensitive (think NASA and the US military), or produce in huge volumes with predictable and simple material requirements (as is the case in the automotive sector).
A steady pace of advances in 3D metal printing technologies has resulted in consistent improvements to the precision, throughput, material options, and potential build volumes. These advances continue to expand the capabilities of metal additive manufacturing but also push users to update their equipment in order to optimize quality and productivity.
The 3D metal printing sector continues to expand, innovate, and alter design methodology. An increasing number of companies and institutions recognize the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing and product development processes. This is bound to continue as nascent technologies in the pipeline progressively improve capabilities and reduce costs.
To learn more, see our guide on What to Know About 3D Printers.
The workflow for 3D printing of metal is almost identical to that of polymers. The processes mainly differ in their energy requirements and finishing processes.
Individual metal 3D printing processes nevertheless differ significantly from one another. The general process starts with the release of the design. It may go to an in-house or outsourced provider. In general, the part will be put through a slicer software to create the necessary STL format that constructs the part as layers. The layers’ orientation often has a big effect on part quality, strength, and cost. The digital part file is placed on a build table in a virtual control environment, oriented to the STL file’s build direction.
The actual 3D printing process can take many forms, but the end result will be a printed part ready for post-processing. The part is then removed from the machine, either by extracting it from a powder bed or as a freestanding component including supports. Next, any supports and residual powder are removed. Further post-processing for localized precision, surface finish, or heat treatment will then be applied.
Three main families of processes make up the 3D printing sector. PBF, or powder-bed fusion, uses successive layers of powder as the build medium. Energy is applied to selectively melt or fuse the powder to form a slice of the part. After each slice is fused, a new layer of powder is added and leveled so it, too, can be fused to the previous one. The fusing energy is the main differentiator in this class — it generally takes the form of a laser or an electron beam. A variant of PBF uses metal powders that are coated with a bonding agent that melts when heated to fuse the layers. This results in a “green” part that must then be furnace-sintered to fully fuse the metal particles and burn away the bonding agent. Another variant of PBF is based on binder jetting, wherein the powders are pure metal and the bonding agent is 2D-printed to bond the slice’s particles to each other and to the slice below. This similarly results in a “green” part that requires sintering to complete the fusion.
Direct energy deposition (DED) uses an electrical arc, laser, or electron beam to fuse metal that is directly fed to the point of application. Unlike in PBF machines, build material is only applied at the build area, so nearly all the feedstock gets fused into the part. There are two classes of DED. First is DED wire, which is analogous to MIG welding in that a wire feedstock is fed into the build zone and fused by either a DC arc, laser, or electron beam discharge. Second is DED powder, where powdered metal similar to that used in PBF is fed and applied at the build point and fused in place with a laser or electron beam.
The third category of technology is a modified version of fused filament fabrication or fusion deposition modeling printing styles. A metal powder-loaded polymer feedstock is thermally melted in a hot nozzle extruder. Layers are bonded to one another via the polymer, but most of the material itself is metal. This process results in a “green” part that must be sintered to fuse the metal particles together and burn out the polymer bonding agent.
For large parts, one of the two DED processes is generally the best choice. This may limit the precision of overall dimensions, but local precision will generally be respectable. Parts made in this way are usually at least as strong as those made by more traditional methods, competing with such methods by logistical and schedule advantages.
In many cases, such parts require only limited post-processing to remove supports, resulting in fast throughput. Other post processes such as precision machining can add considerable extra burdens.
For small or high-precision parts, PBF printers are typically best. Choose the style that your suppliers can stock and that meets your material needs.
Post-process cleanup is a health hazard to the operators. If properly equipped, however, cleaning is a quick and simple task and there’s usually little follow-on work to be done. However, in-house setup requires considerable dedication of resources to develop skills and keep operators safe. Again, post-build machining can be a burdensome requirement that adds time and cost to parts. But at the one-off level, such components can be competitive with CNC machining options, particularly where a short schedule is critical.
For in-house applications, PBF equipment carries lower CAPEX but higher OPEX than similar DED ones. The FFF/FDM variant offers the lowest CAPEX of all, but the post-build sintering process is challenging to manage and requires great skill to achieve an acceptable level of accuracy.
To learn more, see our guide on 3D Printing Types.
The most common materials for the direct fusion PBF and DED machines are:
- Aluminum alloys
- Nickel super-alloys
- Titanium and titanium/stainless steel alloys
- Cobalt chrome
- Stainless steel 17-4PH and 316L
- Gold, silver, and platinum
Materials available for binder jet 3D printing and sintering of metal parts are the same as those for the high energy, in-situ fused PBF processes.
DED wire comes in a wider range of options, so you’re more likely to find exotic and specialist feedstocks. This is because the preparation and processing of wires for this equipment is largely non-specialized. This makes the materials for this processing method relatively cheap.
Materials available for FFF/FDM processing of metal parts are:
- Stainless steels 316L and 17-4PH
Yes, most aspects of printing are expensive. The establishment and staffing of the process can be very costly. High-capability machines cost up to several million dollars and ancillary equipment and environment control add to the cost. Operational costs in terms of skilled staffing, power, and materials stock are also burdensome. Smaller and lower-capacity powder-based machines can reduce the up-front costs, but they are by no means cheap. Larger DED equipment is equally expensive, although the ancillaries are fewer.
The only relatively low-cost method is the FFF/FDM style that prints “green” models. These can even be done on simple desktop printers, though they need to be sintered afterward. However, this is an unusual process that is far from commonplace and requires considerable experience and skill to get useful results from the sintering stage.
Yes, as a rule, 3D-printed metal parts are very durable. In general, quality 3D-printed metal parts have 80-100% of the strength and durability properties of the solid metal itself. The end result is that metal 3D printed parts can be considered effectively equivalent in strength to identical parts made from the same material. The durability of such parts is influenced by factors such as: design specification issues, porosity, and material choice.
Theoretically, yes. The use of desktop FFF/FDM printers does allow home production of metal parts at a surprisingly low cost. However, there are caveats. Items often become porous after they’re sintered, so parts are liable to be considerably weaker than if machined. FFF/FDM processes can deliver moderately good precision from inexpensive equipment, but the sintering process tends to alter the printed parts’ dimensions. It takes skill and experience to account for these distortions. The need for high-temperature sintering is a burden that may not suit home use — kiln-grade equipment must achieve temperatures of 600 to 1000 °C to sinter copper, bronze, or stainless steel.
This article presented metal 3D printing applications, explained each of them, and discussed why 3D printing is an ideal choice. To learn more about metal 3D printing applications, contact a Xometry representative.
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