Metal 3D Printing: From Lab to Fab

Reposted from Inside 3DP  written by Joris Peels, May 23, 2014

Using metal 3D printing for manufacturing has been a dream pursued by the 3D printing industry for two decades. These machines, expensive, complicated and difficult to use have mainly been used by university labs and some aerospace companies.Metal 3D Printing: From Lab to Fab

These have so far mainly been “lab” machines used to develop new technologies and do R&D. But, gradually these machines have improved to the point whereby they are being used more and more for actual manufacturing.

By 3D printing shapes that cannot be made in another way, these machines could have a significant impact on manufacturing.

The machines typically used to print metal are Direct DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) also called SLM and LaserCusing which uses a powerful laser to sinter a shape in a powder bed of titanium grains. A new layer of material is added and the next layer is then sintered. Companies making such machines are SLM Solutions, EOS, Concept Laser and Realizers.

Manufacturers competing for the place in the sun

EOS is the largest vendor in the space, Concept Laser has the largest machine and makes machines for dental, Realizer focuses on jewelry & SLM Solutions have good all rounders as machines. The Concept Laser X Line 1000 R has the largest build volume of 630 by 400 by 500mm. With DMLS you can 3D print gold, aluminum, aluminum alloys, titanium, titanium alloys, palladium alloy, stainless steel, steel alloys, platinum, bronze alloys, silver, cobalt­chrome & Iconel.

The machines range from $130,000 to over $1.5 million. EBM (Electron Beam Melting) is used by Arcam. EBM is basically DMLS but with an electron beam replacing the laser. Typically EBM parts are denser than DMLS parts but have a rougher surface texture. This makes them less suited for aerospace but good as implants because it can promote bone growth on the implant for example.

Swedish company Arcam makes machines such as the Q10 especially for titanium implants. You can 3D print titanium, Iconel and cobalt­chrome. Machines range in price from $600,000 to over $800,000.

Tens of thousands of individualized hip cups and other implants are made each year with Arcam. Image Request Made to Arcam, will wait for image. Directed Energy Deposition DED is a process that is probably not widely known outside the industry but has been used for years by manufacturing companies. With it you can 3D print metals on top of existing parts.

The technology comes in a few different flavors with Honeywells process (called Ion Fusion Formation) spraying metal powder for example and a plasma torch melts it while it is being deposited it while Sciaky’s process (Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing) uses a metal wire and melts this with an electron beam as it is being deposited. It is mainly used as a welding process.

Usually the print head is either 2D, a multi axis arm similar to a CNC machine or a robot arm that moves around the part being printed on. But, I’m betting that sooner or later all of these companies will come up with large format 3D metal machines.

DED is used to repair damaged or worn turbine blades and other high end parts. BeAM, Trumpf, Insstek, Optomec, Sciaky, EasyClad, Honeywell, POM Group & Mori Seiki make these machines.

Each company has their own name for their technology and they are different in some ways. But, from a customer’s perspective you’re going to call all these guys and evaluate them before buying a machine to repair your turbine blades. Its very similar to being in the supermarket and being confronted by Yoplait, Chobani & Dannon while all you want is yogurt.

You can also use DED to repair worn injection molds, airfoils and any high value metal part. DED was extensively used in the Shuttle space programme by NASA to weld the rocket engines for example and has been used in aerospace to weld wing struts together,and make large metal parts on commercial aircraft.

Who are buying the machines?

The largest customers for these machines are aerospace companies, defense departments and defense contractors. The cool thing about DED is that it lets you 3D print extremely large things. With Sciaky’s process for example you can 3D print metal parts of up to 5.7 by 1.2 meters by 1.2 meters.

These kinds of build volumes make DED an exciting technology to see bloom. But, the machines are still very expensive ranging from several hundred thousand to $6 million.

In the next installment we will look at the major indirect methods of making metal parts using 3D printing.