By Todd Grimm, Editor
There is no other manufacturing technology as diverse as 3D printing. It encompasses many technologies and process and each has different attributes. In terms of conventional approaches, only machining comes close to the breadth and range of options. Yet, even machining is constrained to one core method, material removal with a cutter. 3D printing has no such constraint.
3D printing spans:
- $500 kits to $1,000,000 systems
- Micro-parts to massive tools
- Plastic, metal, ceramic, wax, glass, sand and paper
The diversity within 3D printing offers options that work for a wide range of applications in an equally wide range of industries. This gives you unparalleled choice and a wealth of options that allow you to match a 3D printing technology to your needs.
The downside of all these option is that things can get confusing, quickly. With so many choices, where do you start? How do you find the one technology that is right for you?
First, forget about finding the one technology that is best. Instead, aim for a system that can handle the most applications that you will have in the coming years. I’ve long said that 3D printers aren’t truly competitive to one another (for the most part). Those that truly excel, those that are doing the most amazing things, have a stable of technologies from which to choose. They match 3D printer performance to the job at hand.
The one thing that all 3D printers have in common is that they grow parts on a layer-by-layer basis. That basic element is what makes it unique and extremely diverse since there are many ways to “grow” parts. To understand the 3D printer landscape, start with the fundamental process types. Understand the six methods and then narrow the field.
Start at the 30,000-foot level to get a feel for the options that exist. Pick the best and then dig deeper. Begin with a good grasp of what your needs are; what is most important to you; and what applications will be the drivers. Define what success looks like in terms of product quality, time cost and operations. As you map out your processes, come back to Engineering.com for additional information and guidance.
The entire field of 3D printers is comprised of six core processes. They are presented (below) in alphabetical order. For each, highlights are presented, but note that these are generalizations that may not represent the characteristics of individual systems.
Fortus 900mc. Stratasys, Inc.
A2. Arcam AB.
- Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Laser Cladding, Direct Metal Deposition, Laser Consolidation, Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS)
- How it works:
- Metal alloy is heated to a molten state
- E-beam or laser melts a bed of metal powder
- Metal powder is melted and sprayed/deposited
- Material class:
- Metals — from copper to nickel-based superalloys
LENS 850-R. Optomec.
- Metal parts that match/exceed properties of machined/cast parts
- Gradient material properties (deposition systems) — blend alloys on the fly
- Localized adjustment of material properties
- Unique properties across entire part
- Existing part repair (deposition systems)
- Surface finish mimics as-cast parts
- Secondary machining operations usually needed (e.g., machine shop required)
- Experienced operators/machinists needed
- Facility modifications required
- Price range:
- When/why consider:
- Ideal for prototypes, production parts and tooling components
- Best used for low-volume applications where machining/tooling costs are high
**Processes actually melt metal powder – see melting section for details
As noted, this is a generalization of the characteristics of the six core processes. Help your fellow engineers by posting your comments to add the details and exceptions that you have discovered.