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Metal 3D Printing your designs.

 The 3D printing process has evolved tremendously over the last years. This additive manufacturing process allows to develop complex pieces with different kind of materials, including metal 3D printing. Nevertheless, as in every engineering project, there is still a lot of choices to make if you choose Metal 3D printing. Making the right choice of printer, type of metal, and considering even if 3D printing with metal is really the best choice, implies a lot of research and analysis. To define if your project fits for this, you have to understand the features related to your design and the metal 3D printing market. Sometimes, you will use the advice of professionals of the industry, because making an Amazon compulsive purchase might be a highly-cost bad decision. To help you choose right, we developed a debate of ideas in this article you should consider before acting. 

The first step

You have finished the first 3D model version of your design, using your 3D modeling software Solidface. Now, you need to build the first prototype to enter into a phase of testing and analysis. If you take John and Miguel’s example, you might choose 3D printers to accomplish rapid prototyping and to avoid resource wasting. With so many options in the 3D market right now, the hard question is “Where to start?”

Where to start what?    

As you have trained constantly your researching skills,  you have now become a great researcher, and you are ready to face this challenge. If you don’t have the 3D printer yet, the first question that arises is what is the best printer to accomplish your goal?

What is the best 3D printer for you? 

    Understanding your design,

    To make the right selection of a 3D printer, you have to understand what are you design limitations and requirements. By example, the materials you need for your prototype. If you choose metal as your working material, now you have narrowed the selection of a printer to those that meet your requirements. A list of some 3D printers technology that works with metal is shown next

Geometry complexities.    

Choosing Metal 3D printing as your manufacturing process implies that traditional manufacturing techniques cannot easily reproduce your design (Or cannot reproduce it at all). Metal 3D printing is still relatively expensive in contrast to the traditional process. According to 3D Hubs, a kilogram of stainless steel powder is valued from 350 to  450$. At this point, creating a comparative chart of features including pricing would be very useful. If your geometry is complex enough to not be achieved by traditional mediums, then 3D printing is so far the best path.

3D Metal Printing

Parts’ dimensions.

X LINE 2000R is, according to its own creators (GE), the world’s largest machine in the industry. Its dimensions capacity are 800x400x500 mm^3 (x,y,z). Knowing this leads to the conclusion of what is the biggest size of a part that you can 3D print with a metal 3D printer. Understanding this aspect is essential when choosing a metal 3D printer. If you choose a printer that is too big, you will be killing a mosquito with a bazooka, and what an expensive will that be. But if you choose a printer that is too small for your design, then you have a fun-size paperweight for your project.

GE XLINE 2000R Metal Printer

Materials properties.    

When building a 3D printed metal part, you cannot rely on the stress-resistance prediction or any other important aspect of your design with typical properties tables for metals. Some science material researchers have understood this and even have developed a process to improve the material properties for certain applications such as fatigue resistance for metals used in the 3D printing process. Mechanical properties of materials are related to the type of fabrication process they are obtained by, and the 3D printing process adds its own challenge within this context. By understanding the material properties of a piece obtained by 3D printing, will help to know the range of possibilities for applications that you should take into consideration.  For this particular debate, it could be helpful to advise yourself with material experts with experience in 3D printing.

3D Metal Printing Properties
Property of Titanium ALloy TiAl6V4 piece obtained by Selective Laser Melting.

Is it better to buy your own metal 3D printer, or go to professional 3D printing places?

     A good question to ask yourself. Considering high costs related to this aspect of 3D printing technology, an evaluation has to be performed. Evaluating the reach of your project and budget limitations of your team might be a good start. A typical PLA filament costs 20$ per kilogram on Amazon, in contrast, the metal powder could reach up to 450$ per kilogram as stated earlier in this article. So a mistake made with metal printing is really hard to afford. 

   At this point, you might consider a two-stage strategy for the prototype manufacturing process. In the first stage, rapid-prototypes could be manufactured with typical PLA filaments that are easier and cheaper to manipulate. Analysis of the first stage might be focus on aspects not related to material properties, such as ergonomics and performance on specifics aspects. And a second stage focus on prototyping with metals to accomplish the desired goal pursued by metal 3D printing your project. This last stage could be accomplished in conjunction with some expert companies specialized in metal 3D manufacturing processes. These companies already have their workshops and surely have professional advisors for it, so you only pay for the prototype when you know it is ready to proceed, saving you time and money.

Final Thoughts

When you run into the need for metal 3D printing, you will have to do deep research and a well-thought decision. Face this decision the same as you would do with any project. With 3D modeling, you look for the best tools, software, and techniques, by metal 3D printing you will have to do the same to avoid costly mistakes. But don’t be afraid, metal 3D printing is an exciting world to explore, will be on the picture for a long time, and we encourage you to dig deeper into this technology and capacities. As long as you keep awareness as your friend, trust yourself and get the best out of metal 3D printing.

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