As metal 3D printing technology continues to advance and become more accessible, there is a lot of excitement around it and how it can transform manufacturing. There is also a lot of complexity in the industry and many misconceptions about the wide variety of technologies.
Similar to 3D printing with plastics, each metal printing method is suited for a different goal. Below we will touch briefly on the most common technologies. For a more comprehensive look at each, download our Guide to Metal 3D Printers whitepaper.
The most mature 3D printed metal technology, Powder Bed Fusion uses a high power energy source (often a laser) to selectively melt loose metal powder. This technology is able to fabricate incredibly intricate parts, but loose metal powder can be dangerous and requires a significant amount of training to handle.
Like Powder Bed Fusion, this technology also uses metal powder and a laser to fabricate parts, but dispenses the metal through a print head. Compared to Powder Bed Fusion, Direct Energy Deposition (DED) is slightly faster but less accurate. DED is a mature but niche metal printing technology.
This new metal printing technology is less proven than the others. Binder Jetting is similar to Powder Bed Fusion but uses liquid binding polymers rather than lasers to adhere the metal powders together. While it fabricates parts very quickly, it is still a bit untested and continues to use loose metal powder.
This is where Markforged shines. Markforged introduced the Bound Powder Extrusion method with its Atomic Diffusion Additive Manufacturing process. Bound Powder Extrusion uses metal powder bound together with waxy polymers, eliminating the risks and training associated with using loose metal powders. The bound powder media is spooled similar to plastic 3D printing materials and printed layer by layer. Introduced by Markforged in 2017, this method is proven for many applications and still maturing.
While Bound Powder Extrusion has limited throughput compared to other methods, the affordability and ease of use make it the most accessible option for a wide variety of industries.
As the technology has matured and developed into a fully viable manufacturing method, there has been a great deal of hype and excitement over the possibilities. People are excited about strong, complex parts, but the benefits stretch far beyond that.
With metal 3D printing, you are no longer limited by traditional manufacturing constraints. Compared to subtractive CNC machines, additive manufacturing is more adept at curved, natural shapes and intricate geometries. Metal printers are uniquely suited to fabricate these parts, meaning complexity adds no cost. Parts that with other methods require complicated machine setup and excessive material removal can now be produced layer-by-layer with little effort.
Most traditional metal fabrication methods (such as metal casting) require tooling or fixturing, but this is not the case with 3D printing. Tooling costs often make low volume jobs cost-prohibitive. With metal 3D printing, manufacturers can limit bandwidth issues and overhead costs associated with tooling, producing low-volume parts quickly and affordably.
Machined parts require drawings, CAM or both, while 3D printed parts do not. Most 3D printers also require minimal human oversight - simply orient your part, then select materials and basic print settings and the machines automatically produce the parts from your files. You can quickly get from the design to the finished part with less labor.
Metal additive manufacturing was built to accelerate product development. Automation and the lack of drawings and CAM are just a few ways that 3D printing of metal parts helps you get to market faster. Additionally, it can reduce or eliminate manufacturing bottlenecks like inefficient workflows, third party manufacturers, complex purchasing processes and excessive wait times between part iterations.
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One of the most common questions around metal 3D printing is simply, “What parts SHOULD we use 3D printing for?” To answer that question, you should think about the benefits that the technology brings to the table, and select parts that take advantage of those benefits.
For example, a complex prototype is the perfect example of a part that is well suited for metal 3D printing because it has complex geometry and would allow for faster turnaround time. Below are five of the most common uses, but download our Five Applications of Metal Additive Manufacturing eBook to take a deeper look into this topic with real-world examples.
Metal additive manufacturing offers the ability to produce metal prototypes without tooling, allowing for accurate metal parts to be produced in a matter of days while avoiding expensive tooling re-work. With 3D printed prototypes, engineers can explore more design iterations in a shorter period of time.
Manufacturers that use robots for automated tasks often need custom End Effectors for each task, each typically requiring CNC machining. Metal 3D printers can produce these parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods. In addition, they can be produced with an internal lattice structure that results in lighter tooling and faster robot operation.
Similar to end-of-arm tooling, custom tools are often produced in small quantities which results in high overhead costs for traditional manufacturing. Metal printing allows for lower cost per part, as well as the ability to design tools for specific functions, even interfacing with complex surfaces or accessing hard-to-reach spaces.
Thin, complex lattices prove to be difficult to machine effectively. Metal 3D printers are the ideal solution for complex brackets and fixtures that require high strength and stiffness. Lightweight brackets with intricate contours are often inexpensive to produce with a lower risk of failure using metal additive manufacturing.
Most major advancements in manufacturing have been centered on improving the techniques and cost effectiveness of mass production. However, due to the steep price of tooling, traditional methods such as metal casting have a high cost per part at low volumes. This is where metal additive manufacturing can take over. Metal printers make parts without the need for tooling, making the cost per part lower for low-volume production jobs.
As metal printing continues to mature, more and more metal materials have become available to print. Markforged has a wide array of metals currently available with more in development. These metals fall into four primary categories: steel, superalloys, copper and titanium.
Steel is the most common material used in metal additive manufacturing due to its highly versatility. Key attributes of steel include heat treatability, as well as excellent strength and stiffness. Stainless steels and tool steels are the most commonly used because they are more expensive and difficult to work with when manufacturing using conventional fabrication methods.
Superalloys thrive in adverse environments with exposure to high heat and corrosive chemicals. They also feature high surface stability. One of the most common metal superalloys used is Inconel. Often used for turbines, engine seals and rockets, this nickel alloy group is extremely strong, tough and corrosion-resistant.
Titanium has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and is resistant to both heat and chemicals. It achieves its best qualities when alloyed with other metals. The most common alloy, Ti-6AI-4V, is stronger and 40% less dense than stainless steel, excelling in corrosive and high temperature environments. It is a top choice for applications such as aircraft and performance vehicles.
Copper is a unique metal among the available 3D printing materials and is only available to be printed on specific machines. It is used for its thermal and electrical conductivity, rather than mechanical properties. Copper 3D printing allows engineers to create geometrically optimized copper parts like heat sinks, welding arms and bus bars for a far lower cost.
Markforged is the only company currently able to 3D print pure copper.
Learn more about the specific metal materials available for Markforged 3D printers or download our Markforged materials price list today.
The Markforged Metal X is the best-in-class metal additive manufacturing solution, providing everything you need to go from design to fully functional metal parts.
Built around the Bound Powder Extrusion metal 3D printing technology, the Metal X is safe, easy to use and has a small footprint. It features advanced failure detection and can be controlled and monitored from the cloud using the Markforged Eiger software.
The Wash-1 is optimized for efficiency, safety and ease-of-use. Used in the post-printing part of the ADAM printing process, it features debinding and drying stations. Parts can be washed in parallel, maximizing your throughput.
The Sinter-1 is a high-performance, high-value furnace that is used in the post-printing process and is ideal for smaller parts. It features a 4,760 cubic cm hot zone and can process any of the Markforged materials in as little as 26 hours.
Featuring a large active hot zone of 19,644 cubic cm, the Sinter-2 is the perfect solution for batch production and large parts. It can sinter metals in as little as 30 hours. Metal X printers will require either the Sinter-1 or the Sinter-2.
Starting at a price under $100,000 for the printer itself, the Metal X printer is significantly less expensive than metal 3D printers that use different printing methods. You will also need to invest in the Wash-1, one of the Sinter machines and materials to get started.
Contact EXBuild today to discuss your specific application for a custom quote.
ADAM technology brings the existing reinforced extrusion technology from Markforged into the realm of metal. Markforged uses metal powder bound in plastic to eliminate the safety hazards of handling traditional metal powders. This also allows the materials to be put into spools like many other 3D printing materials.
Create your part in the 3D CAD design software of your choice. Then upload the STL file to the Markforged Eiger software and select your metal material. Eiger will slice your part and automatically generate support if necessary.
Bound metal powder is printed layer by layer into the shape of your part. Part files are automatically scaled up for printing by approximately 20% to compensate for the shrinkage that will occur during the sintering process.
Once parts are printed, they are placed into a debinding fluid which dissolves much of the plastic binding material.
Finally, parts are sintered in a furnace at approximately 85% of the metal’s melting point, burning away any remaining binder and fusing the metal powder into solid metal.
Parts produced on the Metal X are strong, lightweight and ready for use.
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Many of the basic principles of design for 3D printing plastic parts apply to the Markforged metal printing process since the material is deposited in the same way. However, there are some key differences to the process including washing and sintering which require other design guidelines to follow for a successful part.
Placing the largest face of your part on the bed surface generally reduces the number of supports needed, which helps you improve print time and material usage. In addition, during the sintering process parts become more malleable and clay-like, so top-heavy, cantilevered or tall and thin features may topple or collapse.
During the sintering process, parts undergo thermal stresses associated with significant changes in temperature. Avoid drastic changes in part thickness as they tend to warp or curl under this type of stress. Try filleting your edges, maintaining a consistent wall thickness or designing with gradual thickness changes.
To continue learning about metal printing with Markforged, be sure to review these additional resources, or just head over to the EXBuild Resource Center for all things 3D printing.
If you need some additional information on how to get started with additive manufacturing in your business or what to know about before investing in Markforged, check out our Guide to Buying Markforged 3D Printers.
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