Although the first 3D printer was invented in 1983, original models were so cost prohibitive and functionally limited that most manufacturers couldn’t realize a significant enough return on investment to make the purchase worthwhile. Today, however, 3D printers bring highly specialized, cost-effective designs to life using a comprehensive list of materials, including a wide variety of metals, plastics, epoxies, ceramics.
For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on metal-based additive manufacturing, which has advanced significantly in recent years.
Additive manufacturing uses a CAD drawing or other computer-generated blueprint to create sophisticated objects one layer at a time. These thin layers are measured in microns/micrometers—the thinner the layer, the longer the object takes to print. There is usually little need for machining, so additive manufacturing can handle the strictest design specifications without difficulty.
As the technology advances and industrial 3D printers become faster and more affordable, manufacturers have finally begun to reap the benefits additive manufacturing has to offer. Once used only for rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing can now produce incredibly complex finished parts in a short period of time, allowing for larger-scale production of goods that are suitable for end-use.
Some industries, such as aerospace and medical devices, have been experimenting with 3D printers for the creation of highly specialized parts and components for several years. We are now seeing the broader custom manufacturing sector turns to additive manufacturing as the standard for difficult design challenges.
Methods of Additive Manufacturing
Once a tool used exclusively to create complex designs out of plastic, additive manufacturing methods have now advanced to employ an array of metals and alloys to create fully functioning prototypes and parts. The most common metal 3D printing methods now available include:
- Binder Jetting
By combining a powdered material with a liquid binding agent to print objects, binder jet 3D printers print a wide array of items using a vast selection of different material powder and binding agent combinations, including a wide selection of metals.
- Directed Energy Deposition (DED)
This method applies a laser or electron beam welder to melt metal into each design layer. Based on the printer, this method may use either a metal powder bed or a metal wire as a material source. DED is one of the fastest metal additive manufacturing methods available, and the melting/cooling process creates dense, usable end parts. This method is also popular for part repair operations.
- Powder Bed Fusion
Powder bed fusion printers employ a laser or electron beam to melt a layer shape into a bed of powder. Additional powder is spread over the top for the creation of a new layer and the process is then repeated. Each layer of melted powder binds together to create a pre-programmed design. This process often uses metals or alloys to build sophisticated working parts.
- Sheet Lamination
Using ultrasonic welding to connect small, thin sheets of material to form specialized designs, components created through sheet lamination are unique from other 3D-printed objects in that they typically require additional CNC machining before being ready for market.
- Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DLS)
By using a laser to heat and form metal powders into complex shapes, this method is one of the most highly accurate forms of metal 3D printing. Parts printed by direct laser sintering are durable and more affordable than parts created with traditional machining methods; Because of this, they are often employed in the aerospace, oil and gas, or medical device sectors.
- Metal Digital Light Processing (DLP) Printing
One of the most recent developments in metal 3D printing, DLP printing involves applying an organic coating to a thin photosensitive metal resin before exposing it to a computer-driven UV projector. The automated projector casts UV light onto the resin in the form of the programmed design; Each layer is formed and dried in this way until the design is completed. The item is then heated in an industrial oven to remove the organic coating material, leaving a smooth and finished final product.
Benefits of Additive Manufacturing
As these methods demonstrate, the technology behind additive manufacturing has advanced significantly in the past decade. 3D printer capabilities now extend far beyond simple rapid prototyping to offer numerous benefits for manufacturers, including:
For decades, 3D printers have enabled designers to experiment during the prototyping stage. New ideas can be quickly printed and tested, allowing for innovative progress in minutes instead of weeks or months.
- Cost Effectiveness
Not only is additive manufacturing equipment more affordable than ever before, but newer machines are also fast and reliable—often comparable or superior to more standard fabrication techniques. With 3D printing, manufacturers can scale production and implement rapid design changes, demonstrating significant ROI.
- Easy Education Access
The manufacturing industry is facing a significant shortage of skilled labor, but new educational opportunities can help convert an organization’s workforce into skilled additive manufacturing workers.
- Eco-friendly Efficiency
More energy efficient than large standard or CNC machine tools, additive manufacturing also produces less waste than most machining processes.
Material Testing with IMR
Additive manufacturing is only as successful as the materials used in the process. IMR Test Labs offers a comprehensive range of testing services to confirm the quality of your raw materials or finished 3D-printed parts and components. We provide extensive testing services to clients in myriad industries around the world to help them guarantee that the materials they work with are of the highest quality, including:
- Powder Analysis
A majority of 3D printers begin with a powdered material. IMR offers full chemical analysis, morphology analysis, percent crystallinity testing, and particle size testing services to verify the purity and quality of your raw materials. Testing your powders prior to fabrication ensures you don’t waste valuable production time creating parts with substandard materials.
- Finished Part Testing
Metal 3D printing relies largely on melting metal materials to bond layers together. Our density tests measure the cohesiveness of the bonds between layers to ensure durability and quality. Tensile, compression, and impact tests analyze the amount of force a finished product can withstand before incurring damage. Fatigue testing is used to determine a components durability over the life of the expected application.
In addition to our labs in Ithaca NY, Louisville, KY, and Portland OR we also have additional certified testing facilities in Singapore and China to make our comprehensive range of testing and analysis services available at multiple points across your supply chain.