The Age of 3D Metal Printing

Bridget Cunningham | August 7, 2014
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In the past, we have discussed the importance of material selection in 3D printing and how it can affect the integrity of the final product. With advancements in technology, the industry has evolved from the production of more simple materials, like plastics, to those of greater difficulty, such as metals. Here, we take a more in-depth look at 3D metal printing and its potential to revolutionize the manufacturing process.

A Booming Industry

According to Wohler’s Report 2014, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is an industry that has experienced a recent increase in popularity. This interest has grown particularly within the metal printing segment — just look to the numbers for proof. As indicated by the report’s findings, the sale of 3D metal printers rose tremendously in 2013, with 348 machines sold. This represents a 75 percent sales increase from 2012, during which only 198 of these machines were sold.

3D metal printing for product development
3D printing has evolved to include the production of metals. Image attribution: Original work of Tomascastelazo attributed under the Creative Commons license.

Due to their initial cost, 3D metal printers are typically used by large commercial industries for the development of high value parts in low production volumes. Along with reducing waste and increasing productivity, this process is valued for the overall freedom it provides in the design and customization of products. As the standards for quality and safety continue to rise, more and more industries have come to rely on this type of production versus traditional methods of manufacturing. This printing process has gained notable momentum within the aerospace and medical industries, helping to produce metal parts for applications in a faster, more cost-efficient way.

Take GE, for example. Using additive techniques, engineers have designed models for lighter, more powerful fuel nozzles in jet engines. With over 300 3D printing machines in use, the company has the resources and potential to continue developing stronger machines with less material waste.

New Initiatives in 3D Metal Printing

With a growing interest in additive manufacturing, new technologies have been designed to further its capabilities. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researchers are working to create a new technique that would allow 3D print jobs to combine multiple metals within a single object. This advancement would address the mechanical and thermal properties of each metal and their interactions with one another in relation to the object’s composition.

Initiatives have also paved the way to extend the reach and availability of this technology. Scientists at Michigan Technical University have designed an affordable 3D metal printer that could change the scope of users for these machines. The printer, which uses thin layers of steel to develop complex objects, would offer a more economically feasible option for small and medium sized businesses that are interested in simplifying their product design and testing process.

Concluding Thoughts

While still in the development phases, the initiatives underway in the 3D metal printing industry have the power to redefine the manufacturing process for businesses, both large and small. With its ability to address both quality and quantity in the development of products, the future for this emerging technology seems bright.

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