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Industrial 3D printing: moving from traditional processes to metal 3D printing

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Metal 3D printing is fast becoming one of the most popular industrial manufacturing processes. It can produce shapes and features that are impossible to manufacture with traditional metal fabrication methods. These include lattices, organic topologies and complex internal coring such as cooling channels. Metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) is a 3D printing process where powdered metal is selectively melted by a laser, on a layer-by-layer basis, until a part is formed. The process makes solid metal parts with a matte surface finish in alloys like aluminum, steel, stainless steel, Inconel (nickel-alloy), titanium and more. It’s better known by names like direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective laser melting (SLM), or direct metal laser melting (DMLM) but the processes are in most ways identical. For simplicity, DMLS will be used in this article.

DMLS has added significant value in the aerospace industry, with demonstrated successes like GE’s GE9X engine used on the 777X housing hundreds of metal 3D printed features. The 3D printed parts offer better performance, less weight and fewer assembly parts than their predecessors. The fuel cost savings alone justify the increased infrastructure, R&D and quality assurance required for GE Additive to champion the metal 3D printing-based project.

For GE, this was not an overnight success, but a strategically coordinated result of research, testing and engineering. In the last decade, GE has acquired major metal 3D printing services, OEMs and raw material suppliers to secure their supply chain. But what about organizations that do not have the means to purchase other companies? How can metal 3D printing start to add value immediately to the general industry? Currently, the best examples are found behind the scenes, where metal 3D printing adds value to internal components of industrial assemblies.

Xometry from traditional to industrial
Complex shapes may be difficult to machine in metal but relatively straightforward for 3D printing

Currently, DMLS is run on industrial platforms with a higher barrier to entry. This is due to specific safety requirements and personal protective equipment when handling powdered metal, the need for pressurized inert gas supply and a family of equipment requirements for the successful production and post-processing of metal prints. Because of the added expenses and infrastructure, many standard companies access the technology using industrial 3D printing services, where the company supplies the design and the service produces the parts.

Beyond rapid prototyping—a widely popular use of any 3D printing method—DMLS is a powerful tool for creating purpose-designed, lightweight components. For industrial and commercial sectors, 3D printing custom components offer a means of chain simplification. Popular additive manufacturing alloys, like 3D printed AlSi10Mg aluminum, can be direct substitutes to traditional metal casts. For pump and compressor housings, a 3D printed alternative can often use the same design file and produce individual parts on demand in 1-2 weeks versus running in a casting foundry, taking weeks or months.

An added benefit of DMLS is that aluminum components are fully dense and do not require resin impregnation, which is commonly used to fight porosity in cast components. DMLS parts used in industrial manufacturing are usually treated similarly to net-shape casts, where post-machining is used to produce sealing faces, O-ring grooves and ported threads. DMLS offers more advantages over industrial metal casts in that prototypes and design revisions can be 3D printed in the exact same high-fidelity material, method and outcome as the final product. This allows for product validation with rapid lead times and few trade-offs.

Xometry from traditional to industrial
Metal 3D printing can directly substitute for cast components, such as this DMLS aluminum pump manifold.

Like many pumps and compressors, everyday DMLS solutions are often hidden in an assembly. They add function and performance but are typically non-cosmetic components. Crown Shade Company, a global distributor of custom commercial shading, utilizes metal 3D printing services through Xometry to produce consolidated brackets, zippers and other intricate metal designs. DMLS is used as a just-in-time solution for custom projects where unique 3D designs may be necessary for a customized project.

About Xometry

Whether it is an industrial housing, consolidated bracket, intricate manifold, or other purpose-built application, Xometry can provide instant pricing, expert consultation, and manufacturing on demand. Xometry’s online resources include free design guides like a Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) Design Guide. Beyond plastic and metal 3D printing, Xometry has a professional supply chain that provides CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, urethane casting and injection molding services for industrial manufacturing, consumer products, aerospace manufacturing, and even medical injection molding.

This article was published in collaboration with Xometry.

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Greg Paulsen

Greg leads the Application Engineering team at Xometry, an online manufacturing marketplace. Greg handles special case projects that require attention on material selection, design-for-manufacturing, or technical engineering resources. Greg also plays a vital role in vetting new technologies and materials to add to Xometry's manufacturing portfolio. Greg’s background is in product development using rapid prototyping, focusing on the various applications of industrial additive manufacturing (3D printing) and advanced manufacturing.

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