3D Printing is when a printer makes a 3D solid object from a digital model. 3D printing was first developed in the 80’s but has recently made advances that have made it rise in popularity among businesses. 3D printing can be done with a variety of materials including plastic, metal, food, paper, and more. 3D printing is revolutionizing the world of business no matter what industry, though there is a big difference between industrial 3D printing and home 3D printing. This post will focus mostly on industrial 3D printing which still requires big investments in terms of machinery costs. Additionally, particular attention will go to metal 3D printing.
Freedom of design
One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is the freedom of design. In fact, industrial printers can reproduce complex geometries which wouldn’t be possible when using traditional machining techniques (milling and turning). Additionally, empty shapes can be created with internal or hidden channels or cavities that are extremely functional for specific industries (e.g. molds with conformal cooling) and impossible to design with a machine tool. This potential was first exploited to build prototypes, that is a very limited number of parts with specific design and materials. Though rapid prototyping has been at the forefront of the industry development, the improvement of the technology has progressively steered towards production of small and medium series.
3D printing requires less steps, especially when coming to assembly, to create a finished product. From this standpoint, a well known example of a metal printed part that benefited of metal printing is GE’s fuel nozzle. (video below)
See how additive manufacturing makes production of the CFM LEAP fuel nozzle possible.
Thanks to 3D printing technology, a unique part was printed where around 20 parts would have to be assembled with traditional machining techniques.
The choice of the right material with the necessary mechanical properties is a key point when it comes to 3D printing. Nowadays, there is a vast array of metal materials that can be used to build metal components (aluminum and titanium based alloys, to mention a couple of them). For this reason, material science is one of the assets companies can invest in at the time of 3D printing. Businesses that have embarked on digital manufacturing have, for example, progressively improved or even implemented internal metallurgical lab for the analyses of both, powders (incoming or in-process) and finished components.
Dimensions have been a relevant limit for 3D printed parts for a long time. In fact, the volume of a metal 3D printed part is as big as the volume allowed by the build chamber of the 3D printer. For most of the applications in metal, this volume has been limited to 240X240X240 mm. Only with the XLine, the biggest between industrial 3D printers manufactured by Concept Laser and commercialized since 2013, this dimensional limit has significantly increased.
In summary, if we analyze the structure of the industrial 3D printing market for metal parts, we can detect some important trends:
- The expansion of the number of services equipped with 3D printers
- The rising importance of materials science as a key factor for success (the quality requirements for 3D printed parts have become higher than they were in the “prototyping phase”)
- The improvement of industrial machinery in terms of dimensions and performance (e.g. time)
- A concentration of the players operating on the market (GE has for example recently acquired the German manufacturer Concept Laser. The acquisition comes after similar moves done on the market by other players thus reducing the availability and number of independent machinery manufacturers).