The rise of 3D printing in metal manufacturing

The latest news off the press is that massive, artificial intelligence (AI) powered robots are now 3D-printing entire rockets using the biggest metal printers in the world. And a 3D metal printed bridge, the finalised bridge was presented to the world in 2018 – it’s just waiting to be installed in its final location in Amsterdam.

3D metal printing is being hailed as THE new technique for fabrication, disrupting the traditional methods. It’s a very exciting development; having worked with the metals industry for many years, we get excited about advancement in technology and this is definitely up there. 


The rise of 3D printing

While existing techniques are already considered fast, safe and cost-effective, 3D printing is the process proving to be even faster, safer and cheaper than what has come before. Indeed, at a tenth of the cost of existing technology, 3D metal printing offers products that are materially comparable with, and in many respects better performing than, products produced by conventional techniques.

3D metal printing is a manufacturing tsunami about to sweep across conventional metal fabrication industries.

When 3D printing metal, raw materials are added and formed in thin layers as opposed to being subtracted or cut from a solid body of metal. The amount of raw material used is therefore extremely resource-efficient, producing virtually no waste and reducing both material and tooling costs significantly.


It’s only as good as the raw material that goes in though

Whilst there’s a cost associated with introducing additive manufacturing, ongoing developments means quality machinery is becoming a lot more affordable, even for smaller manufacturers. It’s worth noting, however, that what comes out of the 3D printer is only as good as the raw material that goes in – just like in a traditional metal manufacturing process.

Materials used include aluminium, cobalt, chrome, copper, stainless steel, titanium and tungsten. But for any of these to be used as raw materials, they must first exist as pure elements or alloy powder. This ‘powder’ could be tested with an XRF (X-ray Fluorescence) metals analyzer to ensure it’s of the quality you need before turning it into a vital component.

The item printed using a 3D metal printer is first created on a computer as a detailed image. This image is used to control the deposition of metal powder and fusion techniques. Multiple layers, typically just 0.1mm in thickness, are then printed on top of this outline, allowing for the creation of extremely intricate and complex shapes.

This opens up a world of design possibilities and offers manufacturers the opportunity to create parts that may otherwise be impossible or too expensive to make using traditional methods like machining, forging or casting.

The printer’s ability to work with such thin layers means exceptionally thin or hollow designs can be accommodated easily, reducing the weight of an item. This is particularly beneficial in industries such as aerospace, which actively seek out lightweight products to improve aero-dynamics and reduce fuel consumption.


Ensuring quality control

3D printing metal also has a dramatically reduced environmental impact as material is being added, not taken away, and any waste is readily reused within the process. When considering the retooling process required in traditional manufacturing, it’s easy to see where additive manufacturing warrants consideration as a more sustainable alternative.

The end product is a dense, sintered metal. Indeed, metal printed parts have higher strength and hardness and are often more flexible than parts that are manufactured using traditional methods. On the other hand, these parts can be more prone to fatigue.

What’s crucial is understanding and controlling the exact composition of the components fabricated. Hitachi’s range of handheld XRF analyzers allows for detailed immediate analysis of the powders and finished components as they progress through the process. The Hitachi devices also enable this wealth of data to be recorded in the cloud for immediate access and evaluation.

And that bridge, well we can’t wait to see it installed in Amsterdam, as it will be a first for the industry.


Find out more

Why not download our Metal Analysis guide or talk to our experts for a demo of our analyzers to help you with your quality control challenges in your processes?

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Date: 19 November 2019

Author: Mikko Järvikivi - Global Head of Product Management

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