What is Metal Additive Manufacturing? An Introduction & Benefits of AM

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3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), is one of the most exciting manufacturing technologies talked about today. We are now seeing a second modern wave of interest and enthusiasm for 3D printing with advances appearing in news feeds everyday across markets including consumer, industrial, automotive, aerospace, medical, and many more.

Surprisingly, the technology is over 30 years old, but the first modern wave of public excitement occurred around 2012 when media outlets touted the technology as ready to revolutionize the entire manufacturing landscape. Additive manufacturing had come a long way over three decades, but it wasn’t quite ready to live up to the massive hype. Fortunately, the technology has developed dramatically in the intervening five years — especially the 3D printing of metal alloys. Companies like 3DEO, for example, are using metal AM in high-volume production of 10,000+ pieces per year.

In this series of articles, this online guide will provide information on the different metal AM processes available today including advantages, disadvantages, and applications.

The purpose of this guide is to help manufacturing leaders and engineers learn more about the exciting new technology and how to best leverage it. The potential benefits of AM are too great to ignore: previously impossible design possibilities, on-demand manufacturing, reshaped supply chains, and much faster product development cycles. For example, AM gives you the ability to create internal chambers, nonlinear cooling channels, and other extremely complex geometries. It’s possible to consolidate many parts into a single design, subsequently reducing the number of parts that need to be designed, created, tracked, and stored.

Benefits of Metal Additive Manufacturing

The popularity of 3D printing is directly related to the technology’s exciting possibilities and benefits. When 3D printing is used to create metal parts, the layer-by-layer approach allows for the creation of parts without the use of a mold or casting. Typically, the time required to make the tooling for different traditional manufacturing processes can range from a few weeks to several months, with no parts being produced in the meantime. Machining a part can be done more quickly, but it can be very expensive for complex geometries and difficult to scale to high quantities.

Metal 3D printing involves a layer-by-layer depositing of material. Image credit: Optomec

To summarize, the four main benefits of metal 3D printing include: lowering costs, quickly innovating, new design possibilities, and on-demand manufacturing.

Lower Costs of Manufacturing

3D printing dramatically lowers the cost of manufacturing complex or custom parts. Also, by removing the need for a mold or tooling you take away the associated investment required to get the manufacturing line up and running. There’s also waste reduction to consider. The economics of CNC compared to 3D printing vary dramatically. Traditional, “subtractive” processes can result in material waste figures in excess of 95 percent. Metal 3D printing is often less than 1 percent.

Create New Design Possibilities with 3D Printing

The layer-by-layer approach of metal 3D printing enables previously impossible designs and customization opportunities by stretching beyond the limits of traditional manufacturing. Lightweighting and parts consolidation are two very popular design applications of metal 3D printing. The end-use product improvements have been well-documented across a wide variety of industries, often resulting in much better weight-to-strength ratios and fuel efficiencies.

The Advanced Turboprop engine from GE, shown above, is one of the best examples to date of using AM to consolidate parts. GE’s engineers were able to strip the engine down from over 850 parts to 12. Image credit: GE Aviation.

Metal 3D Printing Allows You to Be Innovative & Get to Market Fast

Engineers and product designers can iterate on part designs quickly to test new ideas and concepts. Increasing the speed of innovation allows companies to get new products to market faster than ever before. This set of advantages has been particularly important in increasing the adoption rates of metal AM in recent years. It’s easy for companies to see the impact of being able to iterate freely and inexpensively.

On-Demand Manufacturing with Additive Manufacturing

With 3D printing, it is possible to order only the quantities needed and with short turnaround times. In recent years, several major industrial players have made meaningful investments in driving their on-demand metal AM capabilities forward. This type of commitment will only accelerate the trend toward on-demand part production over the coming years. The concept of a digital inventory refers to part files being stored electronically, and then created as desired to match demand. This includes legacy parts where the tooling is unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

It’s important for 3D printing enthusiasts to temper their expectations in terms of the speed at which metal AM will come to gain market share in full manufacturing runs. There are still major barriers to the technology’s viability in production of simple parts at high volumes. Those barriers are getting lower by the day, however. Recent years have seen developments that incorporate the best of what AM has to offer in conjunction with conventional methods. The path forward for AM will be full of unexpected, creative applications like these. With that said, the long-term trend is clear. Metal AM is on the way up. It is already reshaping manufacturing—it’s just a bit more subtle than the hype of 2012 predicted. 

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