Described as the final frontier of additive manufacturing, 3D metal printing has the potential to create intricately designed metal parts faster and less costly than could ever be possible through traditional machining methods. This new, exciting technology has the potential to radically change the manufacturing industry, but it also requires continued research and experimentation to push the limits of what is currently possible.
What is 3D Metal Printing?
3D metal printing follows the same additive manufacturing concept as regular 3D printing, only it creates objects by depositing layers of metal instead of plastic. Commonly used metals are aluminum, cobalt derivatives, stainless steel, titanium, and even gold and silver.
Manufacturers have several techniques at their disposal.
In some cases, the device deposits finely powdered metal and layers of binding material, and then treats the resulting mass with heat. The result is a solid metal object that matches the exact dimensions of a design created on a computer.
The Potential — and Limitations — of 3D Metal Printing
3D metal printing technology has made great strides in recent years. It can be incredibly valuable in creating durable, realistic prototypes that could not survive testing if they were made of plastic. If a team wanted to validate the design of a new exhaust manifold, for example, testing would subject the prototype to temperatures that would melt plastic. In this case, 3D metal printing could give the team an actual metal rendering able to tolerate high-heat testing.
3D metal printing, however, is not yet suitable for the high standards of critical-use applications. There is little doubt that in the near future, 3D metal printers will create parts that achieve the same integrity and strength of traditionally machined metal. But for now, manufacturers and engineers in critical-use industries are limited to prototypes. The most ambitious among us are actively planning to incorporate 3D metal printing into their processes as soon as the technology catches up to industry standards.
3D metal printing offers the speed, ease and low cost of 3D printing combined with the strength and durability of metal. It is not yet reliable enough for end use, but it is an excellent tool for creating prototypes in high-stress applications. With each technological advance, the industry gains more and more trust in the process. Its status as a mainstream tool is on the horizon, and cutting-edge manufacturers are already experimenting and planning for future use.