June 11, 2020
This educational post will summarize the different options and manufacturing methods available for metal 3D printing. We'll cover the in-house and outsourcing costs and why BASF's Ultrafuse 316L is the best way to enter the metal 3D printing space.
There are three major methods for manufacturing 3D printed metal parts: Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) using metal filaments.
Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are the traditional ways to 3D print metal parts. These two methods are out of reach for many individuals and companies because the costs are quite high. If you wanted to run a single part you are looking at a starting cost of around $500 USD. If you wanted to purchase an entire system, you are looking at approximately $1,000,000 USD and the specialized metal powders can cost about $400 USD per kilogram.
In recent years, a few companies introduced complete desktop and studio metal printing systems for around $100,000 - $150,000, which include a 3D printer, a debinding station, and a sintering station. Part costs have also decreased.
FFF 3D printers, have become a crucial tool for many businesses, and universities as costs decrease while quality and reliability increase. It is an additive manufacturing technique that is adopted by makers and large corporations alike. Until today, the only materials you could 3D print at home or the office were different kinds of polymers like ABS, Nylon, and PLA. Enter BASF's Ultrafuse 316L Stainless Steel filament. Yes, you read that right, it's a metal filament that can be extruded on almost any consumer 3D printer. Once the part is printed, it is sent out for debinding and sintering and what you get back is a complete stainless part; ready for use or further machining/finishing.
We covered the different ways to 3D print and now see what these various methods cost. Let's take a fairly sophisticated tool like this bottom bracket installation tool for bicycles:
This part is relatively difficult to machine and requires a few different setups with some specialized tools. It seems like an excellent example of why you might want to use a metal 3D printer.
Different types of metal powders
Different types of metal filaments/rods
Metal: BASF 316L
ABS, PA, PAHTCF15, PET, etc.
* All information except the Ultimaker row is to be taken with a grain of salt, as the figures are based on limited available information.
As you can see from this table, up until now with the introduction of Ultrafuse 316L, the barrier of entry for metal 3D printing was quite high at over USD 100,000. BASF's 316L can be printed on any compatible desktop 3D printer making it easy to adopt and affordable to use.
* These are estimates taken directly from the instant quotation tools
Even when outsourcing to use someone else's desktop 3D printing machine and using 316L, we can still see a significant cost decrease when using BASF's new Ultrafuse filament.
So what's the conclusion here? What should you get, if anything, and why?
If you already have a 3D printer, all you need is an abrasive nozzle and some of the BASF 316L filament, and you can start 3D printing metal parts today. It's as simple as that.
If you don't have a 3D printer, and you're looking at 3D printing metal parts, you should look into getting a desktop 3D printer first. Imagine spending all this money to 3D print a metal part, in-house or not, only to realize you forgot to put a fillet or relief somewhere, and now your piece doesn't fit. A desktop 3D printer allows you to test your parts with inexpensive polymers like ABS and Nylon for fit and function and move on to metal if needed. It is also a great way to understand the strengths and limitations of the additive manufacturing process so that you can design for manufacturing just like you would for machining or injection moulding.
The metal options for desktop 3D printers are currently limited to the Ultrafuse 316L filament, but we are sure that there will be more metal filaments available in the future. If Ultrafuse 316L is not enough to satisfy your needs, explore the higher-end metal dedicated systems that offer complete in-house solutions and more material choices.
Consider these printers if you have proven applications and can see using metal additive manufacturing regularly. Again, a great way to introduce metal AM is by getting a professional desktop machine like the Ultimaker S3 or Ultimaker S5, allowing you to explore both polymers and metal at the same time.
Both SLM and DMLS use a laser and specific metal powders to create metal parts. Often these systems are expensive and require dedicated rooms or self-contained systems due to the inert gases present like Argon that minimize oxidation of the metal powder.
The main difference between SLM, Selective Laser Melting and DMLS, Direct Metal Laser Sintering is the process in which the powder becomes metal.
SLM utilizes a powerful laser, sometimes up to a Kilowatt of power, to bring the metal powder into a molten state so that it bonds to the previous layer. This method often introduces heat-related stresses to the parts, and heat treating is required to alleviate those stresses.
DMLS still utilizes a laser to create metal parts, but instead of melting the powder, the laser heats it enough to bond or sinter to the previous layer. Unlike SLM, there are minimal heat stresses and requires no heat treatment of the part after the fact.
In both of these methods, the parts bond to a metal build platform and use same-material supports. This requires the use of specialized operations like cutting, machining and wire cutting (EDM) to remove supports and remove the part from the platform.
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