Melting Metals, Mainstreaming 3D Printing

Melting Metals, Mainstreaming 3D Printing

MetalOne dramatic surgery made worldwide news in 2012 when an 83-year old Belgian woman with oral cancer had her jaw replaced by a tailor-made, 3D printed titanium mandible in what can be called a first-of-its-kind surgical transplant. Metal-focused additive manufacturer LayerWise from Belgium used a method developed by a surgical team from Belgium’s Hasselt University to create the fake jaw. Titanium, a well known material in the medical implant industry because of its biocompatibility, was powdered and then printed out layer by layer.

Medical implant is not the only industry where 3D metal printing has been life changing. Printed metal machine parts are a popular industrial application for 3D printing.     When interviewed by BIS Research, Ken Vartanian, Marketing Director of Optomec, evinced that the focus of the 3D printing industry is now shifting to metals, particularly conductive metals like gold, silver, and copper which are used in electronics, and functional metals like titanium and steel. However, he maintained that the market, as of now, doesn’t recognize that metals can be used in electronics using additive manufacturing (AM). Mr. Vartanian believes that “the same benefits that are used in structural metals and plastics can be applied in case of conductive metals.”

It would be important to note that these developments in the 3D printing industry are in an astounding contrast to the apprehensions about this technology in its incipient days when it was dismissed as one that had no place among “real” manufacturing machines. This reaction was partially a result of the limitations of the technology in general, and the inability of 3D printers to manufacture metal parts, in particular. At the moment 3D printers can print steel, titanium, and even tungsten—hard metals that are difficult to shape using conventional manufacturing processes.

Major industries, among which are aerospace and automotive, became more interested in 3D printing when additive manufacturing processes like LENS (Laser Engineered Net Shaping), Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), and Laser Metal Deposition (LMD) emerged. Presently, different metals and their alloys such as aluminum, cobalt chrome, nickel, steel, titanium and tungsten carbide alloy powders are used in 3D printing using metals.

3D printers that work in metal create less waste by-product than traditional metal manufacturing techniques. As printing materials improve, “Net shape” manufacturing could be a greener way to make things. In contrast to printing plastic, 3D printing metal enjoys several advantages over traditional metal manufacturing techniques. The industry experts opine that nearly 100 percent of leftover metal powder from a print job could be re-used. In contrast, traditional metal manufacturing (grinding, machining or molding) processes are more environmentally wasteful. Some metal manufacturing methods leave 90 percent of the raw metal behind in waste byproduct.

The application of metal as a material in the 3D printing industry is still at an evolving stage but is expected to have huge implications in future.  Currently metals are used in different industrial verticals to produce components for prototypes. Metals like silver, gold, and copper are generally used in the electronics industry. Companies like Optomec tasted success in using these metals by applying Aerosol Jet Printing technique for producing components like 3D Antenna for Smartphone, and 3D Interconnects, among others. The advantages are striking: faster processing times, lower-cost components, and a level of design freedom that is so far unheard of.

BIS Research published an exhaustive report on 3D Printing Material last month. For any queries on the 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing market, please write to us at [email protected] or call us at : +1 650 228 0182

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