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5 Innovative Use Cases for Metal 3D Printing

Metal 3D printing has seen rapid growth over the last year, according to this year’s Wohlers Report. While not every industrial application lends itself to the technology, there are several cases in which metal 3D printing may well be the right manufacturing choice. Greater design freedom, complexity and at a fraction of the cost: these benefits and more demonstrate how investing in metal 3D printing technologies can help companies produce innovative products. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the applications of metal 3D printing which have already proved to be highly suitable for this manufacturing method.
 
Medical devices

3D-printed-Titanium-Acetabular-Cup
3D printed titanium Acetabular cups have already been approved for hip surgery

 
The medical industry has a long history of using 3D printing for creating prototypes and 3D models for surgical planning. Huge developments biomedical and medical 3D printing have now also made the prospect of more personalised care a reality. Here metal 3D printing comes into its own, giving healthcare professionals a cost-effective way to produce customised, one-off medical devices, such as implants and dentures, that are uniquely tailored to the anatomy of a patient.  
 
Creating such complex and intricate devices is not readily accessible with traditional approaches like casting or machining, not least due to the high cost of production. Metal 3D printing, on the other hand, is uniquely suited to the task of creating highly complex parts at low volumes, making it an economically viable alternative for medical applications.
 
A range of biocompatible metals such as titanium, cobalt chrome alloys, tantalum, as well as precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum can already be used to 3D print medical devices. A case in point: thanks to metal 3D printing, an Australian neurosurgeon was able to produce a titanium spinal implant to relieve a patient’s nerve pain. The implant was designed to perfectly fit the patient’s anatomy, whereas an off-the-shelf replacement would not have been able to relieve the pain in the same way.
 
Looking at dentistry, metal 3D printing can be used to create small batches of highly customised dental parts. Argen is one company that specialises in dental digital technology, and uses metal alloys in powder form to produce custom dental restorations on demand.  In this case.
 
Aircraft components

boeing aeroplane

Metal 3D printing has been a huge boon for the aerospace industry, particularly as the technology can be used to create lightweight metal components, thereby increasing efficiency. A number of aircraft components can already be 3D printed in metal, including impellers, heat exchangers, injectors and combustor liners. While these flight critical components must, unsurprisingly, undergo strict certification processes, many are already in place on aircraft. For example, 3D printed titanium brackets are in use on Airbus’s series production commercial aircraft, the A350 XWB. Boeing is also set to install 3D-printed structural titanium components for its 787 Dreamliner.
 
GE is another company pioneering the field of metal 3D printing. In addition to its famous 3D printed fuel nozzles, the company is also building GE Catalyst, an advanced turboprop engine with more than a third of its components produced using 3D printing and various metals. With a new approach to design, GE engineers were able to make a component more efficient by reducing the number of separate parts from 855 to just 12. This new design could help to lower fuel burn of an engine by as much as 20% and achieve a 10% power increase.
 

Jewellery

Montfront Strata watch with 3D printed steel dial
Montfort’s Strata watch collection uses metal Binder Jetting technology to 3D print steel dials [Image credit: Montfort]
 
 

The jewellery industry is already making the most of metal 3D printing to bring unique and previously unimaginable designs to life. Apart from design innovation, however, the advantages of using metal 3D printing include faster lead times, reduced material waste (which is particularly beneficial in case of costly precious metals), and the opportunity to differentiate in a highly competitive market.
 
Jewellery company Boltenstern, for example, used EOS’s PRECIOUS M 080 to create its “Embrace” jewellery collection, 3D printed in gold and platinum. Using the technology, Boltenstern was able to create a previously unachievable level of customisation and design complexity. Similarly, watchmaking company Montfort has used high-precision metal binder jetting technology to create steel dials for their ‘Strata’ collection of watches, achieving highly complex geometries impossible with traditional manufacturing techniques.
 
Spare parts 
 
Metal 3D printing
 
For industries like oil & gas or defence, managing the frequently restricted supply of replacement parts in remote and offshore locations is a significant challenge. Delayed supplies are not unheard of, especially in the case of particularly remote locations. Luckily, 3D printing can help transform the supply chain for spare parts thanks to the ability to produce parts near to or at the actual point of use. The prospect of 3D printing metal parts on-demand can also help to reduce expensive inventory costs.  
 
Additionally, 3D printing can also be used in cases where there are no existing versions of a part. In this case, 3D printing, alongside reverse engineering, can be used to cost-effectively produce replicate versions of obsolete parts.
 
Tooling
 
Perhaps surprisingly, metal 3D printing is also valuable for creating tooling aids. A key element of the manufacturing process, a mould cavity is filled with melted material which cools and hardens to fit the configuration of the cavity.
 
Traditionally, moulds are CNC milled and may undergo multiple design iterations, taking weeks before the final design is achieved. A lot of material is wasted during this process, resulting in a setup stage that is both costly and time-consuming. However,  with metal 3D printing, injection moulds can be produced much more cost-efficiently: the technology uses the material only where needed, reducing material waste and enabling more frequent design changes and faster turnaround times.
 
Furthermore, by using additive manufacturing, engineers can create injection moulds with improved functionality. This can be achieved by integrating more complex-shaped cooling channels within the design. The homogenous heat transfer within the mould helps to achieve greater cooling characteristics. Mould supplier Conformal Cooling Solutions uses a robotic deposition system and tool steel (carbon and alloy steels) materials to 3D print injection moulds with conformal channels. Using the technology the company is able to reduce the cycle time by 25%, whilst improving part quality.
 

Metal 3D printing: when is it the right solution?

 
Generally, metal 3D printing is the ideal technology for producing complex, bespoke parts that are difficult or otherwise very costly to create using traditional production methods. Despite being a relatively recent evolution in 3D printing, 3D printing metal parts has already shown great promise for a wide range of applications and industries.
 

More on Metal 3D Printing

All You Need to Know About Metal Binder Jetting

A Definitive Guide to Metal 3D Printing

Creating Lightweight Parts with Metal 3D Printing