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Most people are now familiar with the concept of 3D printing, which allows you to “print” an object in layers from the bottom up, based on a 3D computer model that is “sliced” into ultrathin sections and then built up one layer on top of the next.
The concept of 3D printing has been around for more than 40 years, though for much of that time, it was only possible to print objects from soft plastics or liquid polymers. But as the technology improved, people wanted to print more durable objects, specifically from metal. The same processes could not be used, however, due to the high melting point of metals. So scientists conceived of using powdered metals and heating them with lasers.
One of the most common metal 3D printing processes is Selective Laser Melting, or SLM. With the help of high-powered lasers, a layer of metallic powder can be melted in the exact shape of a single slice of the computer model. The liquid metal combines with the layer below, and hardens in place.
After another layer of powder is spread over the build, the laser traces out the next slice of the design, melting and combining it with the material below it. Slowly the object is built up, layer by layer. Once the process is complete, the remaining powder can be recycled, which means there’s much less waste than when machining a piece of metal.
Benefits of 3D Printing
Not only does using less material lower the cost of the raw materials, but it also saves a lot of energy that would go into mining, transporting, and manufacturing those materials.
The technology can be a huge time saver for parts manufacturers that want to speed up the process of prototyping and verifying new designs, which can often take months using traditional methods.
The greatest benefit is probably the design freedom that 3D printing offers. Now engineers can optimize a part for the best shape, size and weight to accomplish a task, without worrying about its “manufacturability.”
3D Printing is Not Always the Best Solution
Of course metal 3D printing is not without its issues. Aerospace, medical, and other precision manufacturing industries place increasingly difficult demands on parts makers. As requirements for precision, durability, and lighter weight increase, scientists keep inventing new materials and processes to meet those requirements.
Even when a part has been successfully designed and printed, it requires “post-processing” to get the desired surface finish, and to remove any temporary support structures that were printed along with the object itself. This adds another layer of time, equipment, and energy to the process of creating a part.
Another issue is dependability. Because 3D metal printing is so new, and so many powdered materials and processes have only recently been available, there’s not enough industrial knowledge or part-specific data to insure that each individual part is free of defects – an absolute requirement when safety is at stake, for example on an airplane.
Metal 3D Printing Services
Metal 3D printers can be very expensive and require experts to operate the printers, while managing the powder safely. Many manufacturers turn to a metal 3D printing service, in order to get a prototype printed quickly, and for much less cost than investing in state-of-the-art equipment and expertise.
For the largest selection of metals in the Southwest, contact Industrial Metal Supply.