Of the growing number of companies now incorporating 3D printing in their production processes, almost 50% use additive manufacturing systems for metal. 3D metal printing has been used for several years in demanding fields such as the aerospace and automotive industries. In these sectors, parts that combine strength and precision are essential, and now these same qualities are proving invaluable in other expanding areas of manufacturing, such as medical implants. Whether they are using small and convenient 3D printers to supplement traditional processes, or investing in larger devices to replace them altogether, companies are benefiting from faster development times, reduced costs, and a growth in innovative new products.
Creating Titanium Components For Aircraft
As strong as steel but 60% less dense, titanium is the metal of choice in high end industries where the best performance is required. Parts composed of Grade 5 titanium are not only light and strong, but are also corrosive-resistant, which makes them ideal for the demanding airline industry. They have traditionally been made by casting the metal in molds. Now, as well as creating entirely new components, 3D printing has been used for the first time to create a replacement spare part for aircraft in the US. The wingtip for the Airbus A320 is no longer in production, and the price of redesigning molds for a cast part was not seen as being cost-effective. Instead, by printing the parts, costs have been almost halved in comparison to conventional manufacturing methods, and they have now been successfully certified for use. And, while some aerovac materials will still need to be manufactured the conventional way (for now), demand for 3D-printed parts like these is likely to increase in the future, and, as it does, lead-times will continue to shorten.
Improving Efficiency In Design Of Automotive Parts
Existing components are also being replaced with 3D printed parts for use in the manufacture of automotive and commercial vehicles. Companies are increasingly using additive manufacturing techniques to quickly and economically produce a range of components. When existing parts are scanned, they can be reverse-engineered, a process that can perfectly reproduce a product after examining its composition in detail. This allows for improvements in 3D printing, including changing the design to require less material, or consolidating multiple components into a single part that is quicker and cheaper to produce.
Opportunities For Development In Medical Applications
As 3D metal printing becomes more widespread among manufacturers, opportunities for research into improvements in the technology are also growing. The metal powder used to fabricate components is usually melted by laser or electron beam, but researchers are currently in the process of patenting a new technique that uses LED light sources for additive manufacturing instead. Using a complex lens system which quickly and easily changes the diameter of the LED beam, the construction time, consumption of powder, and manual post-production processes are all considerably reduced. One potential application of LED printed metal is in the medical field, and in particular, metal implants used to join broken bones. Screws made from magnesium alloys can be reabsorbed by the body once a fracture is fixed. As LED light is less powerful and dangerous than a laser beam, these metal fixtures can be printed safely in the operating theater, where they are to be inserted into bone.
With the wider use of 3D metal printing, manufacturing costs and production time are both lowered. And as adoption of the technique grows, manufacturing companies and independent researchers are encouraged to develop innovative improvements, not only for the products they make, but also to how the printers themselves are used.