The Future of Metal 3D Printing

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Metal 3D printing complex forms with copper

The Future of Metal 3D Printing in Manufacturing

Written by: Ron Luther, Manufacturing Specialist - March 19, 2024

Metal 3D printing is a relatively new technology that has seen rapid growth and advancement ever since the first patent was issued in 1995. It is now becoming a crucial element in many industries because of its ability to quickly produce complex geometries in a host of high performance alloys with no tooling or setup costs. And this is just the beginning. With high-powered stakeholders in aerospace, automotive, healthcare, and energy placing big bets on additive metal, technologies like DMLS or SLM are being pushed to the cutting edge. So what does the future of metal 3D printing look like?

Forecasts by Technology

The future of metal 3D printing technologies is shaped by ongoing research, technological advancements, and increasing industrial adoption. Each technology has its own trajectory of development, with a focus on enhancing capabilities, reducing costs, and expanding applications. We’ve put together an overview of the what’s on the horizon for each of the major metal 3D printing technologies:

Powder Bed Fusion
Powder Bed Fusion

Also known as PBF, this broad category of 3D printing encompasses methods that use a powder model material, fusing particles directly via sintering or melting using a focused beam of energy.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

Selective Laser Melting (SLM)

Both use a laser to selectively fuse (sinter or melt) metal powder particles, layer by layer, to build parts. Forge Labs uses DMLS machines to manufacture parts made with Stainless Steel 316L, Stainless Steel 7-14, Aluminum AlSi10Mg, and Titanium Ti64.

Research is focused on improving the speed of printing, enhancing the quality of the printed parts, and reducing porosity. Advancements in laser technology and process control algorithms will likely increase productivity and allow for the creation of more complex geometries with improved material properties.

Electron Beam Melting (EBM)

Similar to SLM, but uses an electron beam instead of a laser. EBM operates in a vacuum and is well-suited for producing parts with excellent material properties.

Future developments may include the optimization of beam control and energy efficiency, enabling faster printing speeds and the use of a broader range of materials. Efforts to improve surface finish and part density are also anticipated.

Directed Energy Deposition
Directed Energy Deposition

Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) & Direct Metal Deposition (DMD): 

These processes involve feeding metal powder or wire into a melt pool created by a focused laser or electron beam. DED is typically used for repairing or adding material to existing parts.

Innovations are expected to improve precision, surface quality, and the ability to deposit multiple materials within a single print. The development of more advanced monitoring and control systems will likely enhance the consistency and mechanical properties of DED-produced parts. Additionally, portable DED systems could revolutionize on-site repair and manufacturing services.

Binder Jetting
Binder Jetting

This process involves selectively depositing a liquid binding agent onto a layer of metal powder, binding these areas together to form a part. After printing, the part is typically sintered in a furnace to achieve full density. Binder jetting is known for its speed and ability to produce complex geometries without support structures.

The focus for binder jetting is on increasing printing speed and part density, reducing post-processing time, and expanding the range of metal materials that can be used. As this technology matures, it is poised to become a more cost-effective solution for mass production, potentially competing with traditional manufacturing methods for certain applications.

Metal Extrusion
Metal Extrusion

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) for Metals, Bound Metal Deposition (BMD): These processes use a metal filament or a mixture of metal powder and polymer binder, which is extruded layer by layer. After printing, parts undergo a debinding process to remove the binder, followed by sintering to achieve a fully dense metal part.

The future here lies in refining the debinding and sintering processes to improve the final part density and mechanical properties. Innovations in material formulation and extrusion technology could broaden the material options and enhance the reliability and precision of metal extrusion processes.

Sheet Lamination
Sheet Lamination

Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM): This technique welds layers of metal foil together using ultrasonic vibrations. It can combine different metals and integrate embedded components, offering unique capabilities in creating multi-material parts.

Advancements are likely to focus on expanding the capabilities for integrating different materials and embedded components within a single part. Improvements in bonding techniques and ultrasonic welding technology could enable the production of larger and more complex parts with enhanced functional properties.

Cross-Cutting Future Trends

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Bigger build volumes

The limits of the printable area puts a hard constraint on how large a single printed part can be. It is possible to split parts, print in segments and then weld them back together, but this comes with sacrifices in accuracy, surface finish, lead time and cost. As the technologies improve, build volumes will get bigger, which will enable more design freedom, flexibility and throughput.

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Greater accuracy

Metal additive machine manufacturers are working constantly to improve the accuracy and stability of printed metal parts, as well as exploring hybrid solutions, which combine the complexity and flexibility of 3D printing with the precision and reliability of machining.

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Material Development

New alloy compositions and material forms are being developed specifically for additive manufacturing, promising improved properties and functionalities.

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Process Monitoring and Control

Enhanced sensors and machine learning algorithms are expected to provide real-time monitoring and adaptive control, improving part quality and reducing the need for post-processing.

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Software and Simulation Tools

Advances in software will improve the predictability of the manufacturing process, reducing the trial-and-error approach and making it easier to achieve desired outcomes on the first try.

On the Horizon

In the section above, we went over near term developments for existing technologies, but there are exciting concepts being explored in additive metal that exist on the edge of science fiction (for now!)

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3D Printed PCBs

The integration of metal 3D printing with PCB fabrication could revolutionize electronics manufacturing by enabling the direct printing of conductive tracks and components onto 3D structures. This could lead to the development of more compact, lightweight, and complex electronic devices with integrated cooling channels or antenna structures. Advancements might include improved electrical conductivity of printed materials, better integration with traditional electronic components, and enhanced durability of the printed circuits.

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Multi-Material Printing

Future developments in multi-material metal 3D printing are expected to focus on enhancing the ability to print with multiple metals and non-metal materials within a single build process. This could enable the creation of parts with localized material properties, such as varying thermal conductivity, magnetic properties, or mechanical strength. Innovations may include advanced nozzle designs, improved process control for managing material transitions, and the development of new support materials that can be easily removed or dissolved.

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In-Situ Heat Treatment

In metal 3D printing, post-processing heat treatments are crucial for achieving desired material properties. Future advancements might involve the integration of in-situ heat treatment capabilities within the 3D printing process, using technologies such as laser or electron beam post-processing to locally heat-treat parts immediately after deposition. This could reduce internal stresses and improve the mechanical properties of printed parts, making the process more efficient and reducing the need for subsequent heat treatment steps.

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On-Demand Metallurgy

This futuristic approach involves sophisticated machines that can analyze a part's design and performance requirements, then dynamically select and blend materials from available stocks to create an entirely new alloy optimized for the specific application. Such a system would leverage the versatility of metal 3D printing to produce parts with localized enhancements in strength, thermal resistance, or other desired attributes.

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Hybrid Additive/Subtractive Manufacturing

Hybrid manufacturing combines additive and subtractive processes in a single machine, offering the potential to produce parts with complex geometries and high precision. Future advancements are expected to focus on improving the integration of these processes, such as developing more sophisticated control systems and tool paths that optimize the transition between additive and subtractive phases. 

Metal Futures

The future of industrial metal 3D printing is shaping up to be pretty mind-blowing so we’ll make sure to keep you updated with new developments. We can already accomplish amazing things with the technologies we have, so let us know if you want to experiment with cutting edge metal additive manufacturing, or feel free to upload your design file to our online quote tool for instant pricing in Stainless Steel, Aluminum, or Titanium.