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Metal 3D Printing 101

Metal 3D Printing 101

By Brittany Waddell

What Is Metal 3D Printing?
Most people are aware that one can print parts based on blueprints from the internet. Many have no idea this can apply to metal parts as well. You’re probably interested in how this technology works and how you can use it for yourself.

3D printing is quite simple when you grasp the basics. You can fuse metal together or even make hollow metal parts. Metal printing is a great avenue for printing professionals to get in to.

How It Works
There are numerous methods by which 3D printing metal is possible, many of them still existing as fledgling technologies. The most common methods involve the use of a laser to fuse powder metal particles together, but more emerge as this exciting technology matures. In this article we explore several of the most common methods.

Pros and Cons

-Fast prototyping
-Less waste
-Replace parts on demand
-Can make high quality aerospace parts
-Make parts CNC machines can’t
-Strong and reliable parts

-Still expensive compared to plastic 3D printers
-Hard to find the best designs
-Metal powder is expensive
-Parts still take many hours to make
-Some parts are still too complex to make

Metal 3D Printers And Technology

There are many types of metal 3D Printing. Some of the most common printers include:

Fused deposition modeling (FDM): FDM builds objects layer by layer by heating thermoplastic wires. CAD models are cut into layers and calculates the way. FDM heats thermoplastic until it hits its melting point and is released through a nozzle and then on to platform. A computer translates the dimensions of an object into X, Y and Z coordinates and controls the nozzle and the platform by calculations made from the printer. When the layer of plastic binds to the bottom layer it cools down and hardens. Once the layer is finished, the platform is lowered to start building the next layer. FDM can be used to create green parts: powder metal parts that can then be sintered into continuous metal parts.


Direct Metal Laster Sintering (DMLS): DMLS creates a metal or a metallic alloy. An alloy combines two metals to achieve desired properties. A layer of powder is sintered with a laser in the desired geometry to build a layer. This method is different from SLM (read below) in that the powder is sintered together and not melted. This process is repeated until a full part is constructed. DMLS is still mainly used in high-end engine parts.

Selective laser melting (SLM): SLM creates a single metal with an intense high-power laser beam that fuses metallic powders together and forms a solid object. Every layer of the metal is melted. The fine powder is distributed on a base and then fused using a 2D layer image. After the layer is completed the process starts again with the next layer.  Metals that can be used for SLM include stainless steel, titanium, cobalt chrome and aluminum. SLM is still known for producing parts with some defects since it must get every layer perfect. Correctly made parts are extremely dense and strong, so much so that NASA has used it to make parts in rocket engines.


Electronic Beam Melting (EBM): EBM uses an electron beam and metal powder that melts into a 3D part layer. It is typically conducted under temperatures as high as 1832° F.

Laminated object manufacturing (LOM): The Lom layers adhesive-coated paper, plastic or metal laminates are fused together using heat and pressure and then shaped with a laser. The base is moved down once the layer is finished.  The process is repeated until 3D material is finished printing. Lom is one of the most cost-efficient printing methods.

How Industries Are Transforming:
Metal 3D Printing enables much more rapid innovation. A person can download a design off a website and have their printer create it. This allows entrepreneurs to make prototypes much more quickly.

No one will have to wait for a machine shop to make their order. They won’t have to order a specific amount of parts either. They can have their new part in under a few days. This will allow people to rapidly prototype their product designs.

There will be a big drop in waste across many industries. A factory throws away many defective parts and scraps. They also must employ many people for all these processes. Printers can end this need.

The decrease in the cost of developing new parts will make the price of metal parts much cheaper. Inventors can take much bigger bets when testing new ideas. This has allowed the aerospace industry to make to make cheap and strong parts that work very well. Experts expect this to trickle across many other industries.

Final Thoughts:
3D metal printing will increase in popularity and greatly alter how products are made. Common people will be able to make their own inventions and novelties. People will make some of their own parts, jewelry, kitchenware and much more. It could even eliminate the need of importing materials from overseas. 3D Metal Printing is a promising industry to work and invest in with an explosion in new products and a massive drop in prices this industry is consistently growing.

Brittany Waddell is a contributing writer and media specialist for American Paper Optics. She often produces content for a variety of 3D Printing blogs.