Lowering the Barrier to Entry for Metal 3D Printing

How ExOne Metal Designlab helped produce custom stainless-steel brackets on an office-safe system.

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Written by: Howard Rhett, Product Manager at ExOne

As metal 3D printing continues to make headlines with unique and innovative applications, many companies are left thinking, “How do we get started?” Desktop systems that produce plastic parts have made their way into many offices, but significant hurdles remain for manufacturers looking to make the jump to metal. Material handling, employee safety and infrastructure all need to be taken into consideration.

Many facilities have adopted plastic 3D printers for early prototyping, yet the appeal remains for engineers to both capitalize on the ability to iterate designs quickly while also testing parts in the material in which their mass-produced metal part will be manufactured. Luckily, the technology has advanced to offer metal 3D printing with a low barrier to entry in an environment that is safe and low-risk.

Metal 3D printing in an office-safe environment. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

Metal 3D printing in an office-safe environment. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

Bound metal 3D printing makes office-safe additive manufacturing a reality. When it comes to material safety concerns, for example, the metal powder is enclosed in cartridges for safe handling and easy operation. The common debinding step of early systems has been eliminated to not only make debinding equipment unnecessary, but to also remove solvents, fumes and odors from operation. Truly office-friendly equipment that requires no special infrastructure and is as easy to use as any entry-level plastic printer is leading many companies down the path to adoption.

How big of a difference can in-house metal 3D printing make?

Bespoke Brackets by the ExOne Metal Designlab

We are restricted from sharing most customer applications, but even we use the technology in our office to provide fast solutions.

An ExOne customer required a bespoke bracket to accommodate customizations to their binder jetting machine. A fast and simple-yet-durable solution was required to minimize engineering and manufacturing costs while providing the customer a quick and functional solution. Plastic 3D printers offer a great quick-turn solution, but the parts are frequently replaced due to their low durability and high wear rate.

Stainless steel brackets as-printed. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

Stainless steel brackets as-printed. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

The team leveraged the ExOne Metal Designlab to create the custom metal brackets and accommodate changes to a customer’s binder jet machine. “Because of the location of the brackets near the emitter lamp, we knew the parts had to be metal because polymer wouldn’t be able to withstand cyclic heating and cooling,” said Alex Paterson, Process Development Engineer at ExOne. “FDM and SLA wouldn’t have produced parts durable enough for this application, and the Metal Designlab is as easy as using any plastic printer.”

After creating the design, the solid part was successfully built without infill. HydroFuse material was used, in which 316L stainless steel is mixed in a water-based paste for extrusion. With 99 percent metal powder by weight post-printing and pre-sintering, there was no need to debind the parts after printing, allowing them to head straight to the furnace. The two-step process eliminated the need for binder, a debinding unit and expensive solvents, yet provided a finished part within 24 hours—four hours to print, and sixteen hours to sinter. Traditional CNC machining would have required multiple days and cost at least ten times more than the brackets 3D printed on-demand.

Once sintering was complete, the supports were removed and threads tapped for mounting, providing the customer a value-add solution without a large investment of time or money needed in order to execute.

316L bracket in use. The bracket was printed in an office setting for on-the-fly customizations. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

316L bracket in use. The bracket was printed in an office setting for on-the-fly customizations. (Image courtesy of ExOne.)

Imagine an engineer designing a new part, and being able to have that stainless steel prototype in-hand for testing the next day. How much faster could companies bring new innovations to market with the design freedom and speed of metal 3D printing? How much more functionality could be incorporated into parts without the design restrictions of traditional production processes?

We’re excited to see the evolution of engineering and design in parallel with adoption of bound metal 3D printing. 

To learn more, visit ExOne.