I had the pleasure of participating in the 3D Printing Goes Heavy Metal session and its panel discussion at the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing show this past Wednesday at the Javits Center in New York City. The discussion covered a wide range of metal 3D Printing topics, with a few specific discussions regarding design considerations, overall cost, and post-process requirements. For those of you who couldn't make it to the discussion, we will share a few of those thoughts here.
Design for Metal 3D Printing
Additive design became a topic of increasing interest as 3D Printing broke away from strictly prototyping uses and into a manufacturing technology for functional applications such as tooling, spare parts, and production parts. I think a primary takeaway from that panel was the consensus that designs should begin with a particular machine and material combination in mind — as well as the broad concepts of additive to achieve an optimized part.
Practically speaking, every process undergoes its additive step and post-processing requirements in slightly different ways. Hence, understanding and incorporating those key considerations is particularly relevant to developing a good product. This can be challenging and may often require an expert's support. The session highlighted some exciting advances in topological optimization and generative design software, which can help you take full advantage of a 3D printers' capabilities. With that being said, there was also consensus that, currently, no software could deliver ready-made parts that were suitable to go straight to the printer. A degree of expert interaction with the designs was warranted.
Metal Additive and Costs
Obviously, metal 3D Printing is generally expensive and justifiably so. The leading technology in the metal additive space, powder bed fusion (PBF), is quite costly due to the requirement for highly refined powder and expensive underlying lasers with extraordinarily high optical requirements. However, an advancement of competing technologies in recent years has brought competition to PBF.
Metal binder jetting and extrusion technologies leverage less refined powders to deliver more cost-effective parts for certain geometries. These powders utilize sintering furnaces that, on the whole, lower costs compared to high-power lasers. A final group of additive processes scraps both furnaces and lasers altogether: sheet lamination, cold spray, and metal stirring. These technologies, though not as developed, potentially open the door to cost savings as well. There are also different hybrid solutions that can take rougher outputs from an additive process and achieve a degree of post-processing on the fly.
3D Printing is famously known for requiring a significant amount of post-processing, tied in part to laser powder bed fusion; but it's not unreasonable to say that post-processing requirements are prevalent across the metal 3D Printing industry. The big takeaway from this portion of the discussion was that designing for your particular process can be extraordinarily valuable in eliminating post-processing costs. If your design does not account for a particular additive process, then it will likely require the removal of support structures. Similarly, things like trapped powder can wreak havoc on a finishing station; avoidable with appropriate "design for manufacturing" thinking ahead of time.
So if you couldn't make it to the show or join us at the panel discussion, I hope it was helpful hearing some of the key inputs to how 3D Printing is going heavy metal. If you have other questions, don't hesitate to reach out, look around our site here, or leave comments in the section below.
-Cullen Hilkene, CEO