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Printed Polymer and Metal Parts: Advantages and Specifics

Printed Polymer and Metal Parts: Advantages and Specifics

Printed Polymer and Metal Parts: Advantages and Specifics

In the last five years, 3D printing has secured a firm place in the ranks of production processes with steady growth. But even with this method, the user is still faced with the difficulty of choice with regard to the material to be used—will it be metal or plastic? In this article, Stefan Roeding of Additive Flight Solutions explains the key considerations in choosing the material to use in your applications.

When new workpieces are required, the user must decide not only on the material to be used, but also on the manufacturing method. In the past, the choice of manufacturing methods was limited to milling, casting, and grinding, to name a few. In the last five years, the method of 3D printing has secured a firm place in the ranks of production processes with steady growth. But even with this method, the user is still faced with the difficulty of choice with regard to the material to be used. The range of materials and powders now available is almost immense. When special requirements are involved, the choice is significantly reduced. However, one fundamental question always remains to be clarified in advance.

The Key Question: Metal or Plastic?

Both materials have specific characteristics that have to be weighed depending on the application and objective.

Printed metal parts, primarily found in aerospace and medical technology, are increasingly conquering the consumer sector (for example, accessories and jewellery). In the automotive sector, many possible applications are conceivable, but due to the relatively high material and production costs, they are more likely to be used in small series for limited range of high-value cars and exclusive sports cars. The possible applications are limited as well by the extremely high cost of purchase and maintenance of metal 3D printers, which require special working environments.

In addition, post-processing technologies also requires significant improvement. The printing process is complex and time-consuming, in large part attributed to achieving the specific set parameters.

SLM Process for Metals

The most established process at present is SLM (selective laser melting). Here, the metal powder is applied in layers to a pressure board and melted by laser. This process is used when metal parts are needed very quickly, such as in medicine for implants. Commonly used metal powders are aluminium, stainless steel, titanium, and special alloys.

Adoption for use in established applications—although on the rise—is currently still quite low. (FIGURES consumed material).  While a single OEM from Landshut (Germany) consumes 86,000 tons of cast aluminium annually, the consumption of metal 3D printing powder worldwide in 2019 was about 5,800 tons. Thus, it still plays a limited role at the moment, but this will change in the near future. 

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