In 2022, it is no longer a question of whether metal 3D printers are worth the investment but rather a question of which one to invest in. It is evident since the pandemic that 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing(AM) is supply-chain resilient, sustainable and it is cost-effective. The message is clear, 3D printing and AM’s potential spans across verticles including aerospace, automotive, and the medical sector.
At the heart of each production, the application of material used brings an innovative design to life. Materials play a significant role in AM and have really changed the game. With advances in this area, we’ve seen AM move from technology for prototyping to one that is addressing production applications. According to Chris Connery, VP of Global Analysis at CONTEXT, the key 2022 3D printing trends he expects to see this year include the proliferation of high-temperature, material extrusion thermoplastic printers, composites, binder jetting for metal, and company growth by way of consolidation.
Metal 3D Printing
The ability to additively manufacture near net shape parts has long been a holy grail of manufacturing. As a result, Metal 3D printing — the technology that seems likely to deliver on that promise, has carried an immense amount of “hype.” The blind excitement for the process, largely overshadows the actual benefits of metal 3D printing which paints the picture of a unique fabrication method that can specifically add value to the manufacturing process in a few key ways.
1) More efficient to get the perfect metal part
Getting a perfect metal part right the first time is almost impossible. Iteration is the only way to get the perfect part — more iterations make your product better and save significant dollars in the long run. Unfortunately, iteration is no free lunch. While a lot of work goes into each iteration, much of the time is spent on waiting. The time and cost you have for a project dictates the number of iterations that you can do. Traditional processes for iteration didn’t do very well in both time and cost.
2) Reduce downtime and manufacturing costs
Metal part iteration is expensive as it requires skilled labour, advanced machines, and custom tooling all working in tandem to produce parts. Metal 3D printing increases your flexibility in manufacturing and allows you to produce revenue-generating parts. 3D metal printers help you produce parts more affordably by not taking away your precious manufacturing resources.
With a metal 3D printer, you can quickly and affordably make iterations not just for your new product components but also your fixture and toolings to further improve your production line. You will now have more bandwidth to even go back and make iterations to perfect your existing production parts and toolings.
3) Design geometrically complex parts
Unlike conventional manufacturing, additive manufacturing is cost-independent from part complexity. Compared to subtractive CNC machines, it’s more adept at curved, internal cavities and intricate geometries. As a result, you are getting more competitive parts than your opponents and it is cheaper, easier, faster and more beautiful. Generating designed structures and custom cooling channels are exclusive and only possible with metal additive methods.
4) Complexity is free
Tool pathing is done by 3D printing slicing software, eliminating the labour and CAM costs native to conventional methods. With no programming and only small preparation responsibilities, the part cost is only the material and maintenance of the machine. The additive process yields little wasted material and movement in the fabrication of a part. If a design is printable, complexity doesn’t cost extra.
Markforged Metal X
One of the key market players in this industry and metal 3D printing technology is Markforged, the world’s largest fleet of cloud-based industrial 3D printers, powering thousands of top manufacturers and brands across the globe. Engineers, designers, and manufacturing professionals all over the world rely on Markforged metal and composite printers for tooling, fixtures, functional prototyping, and high-value end-use production.
The Metal X 3D printer is based on Markforged’s renowned composite 3D printing technology, but instead of using composite material, the printer uses the metal powder that is bound in a plastic matrix. It reduces the safety risks associated with other forms of metal 3D printing. For 3D printing metal parts, Markforged Metal X combines metal injection moulding (MIM) and fused filament fabrication (FFF) technologies together into Bound Powder Extrusion. This metal 3D printing process helps create light parts that do not sacrifice part strength. Currently, the Metal X is able to print 17-4 Stainless Steel, Inconel 625, H13 Tool Steel, A2 Tool Steel, D2 Tool Steel and Copper. There are other materials such as 316 Stainless Steel and Titanium that is under testing and will be released in the near future.
Bound Powder Extrusion (BPE)
Bound Powder Extrusion (BPE) is an exciting newcomer to the metal additive manufacturing space. Unlike almost every other major 3D printing process, BPE machines do not use loose metal powder. Instead, the powder is bound together in waxy polymers in the same way that metal injection moulding stock is created. The result is a material that’s much safer and easier to use than loose powder: bound powder extrusion material can be handled by hand and does not require the safety measures that loose powder machines do. BPE filament is extruded out of a nozzle in a manner very similar to standard FFF 3D printing, yielding a “green” part that contains metal powder evenly distributed in waxy polymer.
Bound Powder Extrusion has also much fewer requirements in operation training and facility requirements. Everything is pretty much automatic to ensure a high success rate and part quality. Operating training takes just hours. It provides ease of mind if a new operator is needed in the future. The lower investment cost and installation requirement also provide the opportunity for future scaling.
AIE is the partner of Markforged in Vietnam. Contact us if you have any questions!