The introduction of 3D printing to the manufacturing landscape was revolutionary. When it first appeared on the scene, its applications were limited. The technology was restricted by the hardware, skilled workers, size, speed, cost of production, in addition to other factors. However, it was easy for many to see how the technology had the potential to change the game in the same way that other advancements, like automation, changed the manufacturing industry.
While tackling the initial obstacles was key, once 3D printing became more common, it was time to tackle other issues impacting its more widespread adoption and use. In addition to making advancements in cost, environmental, and time-saving efforts, there was time to explore the materials available and explore ways to increase their versatility as well. With these objectives in mind, Markforged pushed innovation and introduced the Metal X printer.
In the early years of additive manufacturing, its primary use by significant manufacturers was as a prototyping resource. In the past, prototyping was a costly process that took a considerable amount of time. 3D printing changed that by speeding up the process and enabling manufacturers to quickly produce prototypes for testing, improving the workflow, and shortening time to total production.
There is little doubt that knowing the cost and time-saving nature of rapid prototyping via 3D printing has sparked an understanding that manufacturing professionals could also use the same technology to support lean manufacturing goals. The goal of lean manufacturing is to reduce or limit waste, and additive manufacturing supports this objective by allowing the reuse of raw material and decreasing the production of unnecessary parts. More specifically, creating a single part (to fix, repair, or replace) is nearly impossible in a traditional manufacturing setting. Often, a line must complete an entire run, resulting in overproduction which is costly in both time and money.
Given the ability for additive manufacturing to have had a significant impact on multiple industries with these two benefits, Markforged’s introduction of continuous composite parts capabilities with its printers and with its patented Onyx revolutionized parts production by allowing the creation of 3D printed parts with unprecedented strength.
Before this innovation, additive manufacturing provided tough parts; however, it was nothing as durable or strong as required by industries with rigorous safety requirements (like automotive and aerospace) or within industries already working with strong parts or intense processes. In short, continuous composite parts opened the door to the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing in several industries.
Markforged metal printing is facilitated by the Metal X printer and a 3 part process that involves printing, washing, and sintering, allowing users to “print” with everything from stainless steel to copper.
The Metal X uses fused filament fabrication (FFF) to combine two different filaments, fed from spools, which are extruded across the layers using two separate nozzles. One of those filaments is a ceramic release material while the other is the metal powder filament. Once the part, referred to as a “green part” is completed, it’s removed from the build tray. In its current state, the part does not yet appear to be metal.
The second stage involves washing. The washing, which is more like a submerging process, removes the binding agent using a solvent and can take from a few hours to a few days depending on the size of the part. The “brown part” is then moved to the sintering process.
Sintering is a process that involves either pressure or heat (in this case heat) to create a solid object. Markforged’s sintering process gradually increases the heat with the first stage removing any residual binding agents and the second stage sintering by bringing the material nearly to the melting point, allowing the metal to fuse and solidify. The sintering process takes about a day and then the part is ready for use.
This entire process is guided with Markforged’s Eiger software which ensures the quality of the product and process from printing through the final stages and allows users to monitor production as well.
Before the introduction of metals to the 3D printing process, the primary material was thermoplastics. While lightweight and capable of delivering precision parts, there are, quite simply, physical material characteristics of metals that are superior.
To start, metal can withstand higher temperatures without degrading; it’s stronger and more durable, and it has superior conductivity when it comes to both heat and electricity. For certain applications, these characteristics are vital, and while thermoplastics are lightweight in comparison, durability and strength matter quite a bit in comparison.
Beyond comparing material characteristics, 3D metal printing reduces material waste as well. Because 3D printing creates the object layer by layer, there is no need to cut or remove additional material from a final object. Further, the Metal X production process creates stabilizing supports to negotiate overhang features. Those supports remain powderized during the sintering process, so there is no additional metal waste.
Another distinct advantage of 3D printing is the lack of post-production adjustments. Additive manufacturing means engineers and designers can create more complex parts without the need to add additional elements post-production as one might with traditional molds or manufacturing. For example, a part may need additional machining to add features like threads or holes, and, with 3D printing, manufacturers can factor those right into the design.
While additional benefits depend upon the application, these factors alone establish distinct advantages that demonstrate how metal printing has significantly changed additive manufacturing.
With those advantages, the applications for 3D metal printing are numerous. From specific designs and products/parts to industries, this technology is just starting to change manufacturing in important ways. As additional materials are added and become part of the additive manufacturing landscape, these will continue to grow.
While identifying the industries that utilize 3D printing is important, it certainly doesn’t reflect all of the potential uses that exist outside of businesses already using the technology. In fact, many businesses may not realize how beneficial the process and technology could be for them and their needs.
3D printing is already a great tool for rapid prototyping, but it is exceptional for metal parts because there is no need for post-production tooling. 3D printing can significantly shorten the development cycle for parts and products.
More specifically, 3D printing is an excellent solution for parts required for end of arm tooling (EOAT) due, predominantly to the on-demand nature as well as the ability to create detailed and specific designs to meet tooling needs.
Much like robotics, the ability to create complex designs that need no tooling during post-production means users can create the tools they need to complete complex jobs without waiting for traditional manufacturing or trying to adapt other tools to complete a job. As a result, both time and money are saved on low-volume specialized tools.
Like custom tools, brackets are required in many manufacturing situations (and more), and typically complex designs requiring tooling, cutting, and significant labor post-production. Design features pose no problem to 3D printing.
Similar to custom designs, any part that is typically not mass produced, but is needed, can be 3D printed. Rather than waiting for another production run or spending a lot to have a part specially made, 3D printing can resolve that issue and print on demand. In short, you get the parts you need, when you need them.
In addition to these highly specific uses for 3D metal parts, multiple industries utilize it for parts like these and more, including:
If you don’t see your industry listed, there’s a good chance you will in the coming years. As the technology evolves, and as new materials are explored and developed, there’s little doubt that metal additive manufacturing will continue to expand.
If you’re looking to reap the benefits, join the growing numbers of manufacturers utilizing this technology, or hoping to be ahead of the curve and get the jump on the competition, get in touch with the TPM team today. TPM can be your partner in understanding the ways Markforged technology can revolutionize your business as well as save you time and money.