Industries use metal for 3D printing

Metal use in 3D printing is growing rapidly, and metals are being used for both customized and mass production by a variety of industries, according to a report by IDTech. Additive manufacturing metals in use or under investigation include titanium, nickel, aluminum, and cobalt as well as alloys of those materials.

By Chris Vavra August 19, 2015

3D printing encompasses a variety of different printing processes and is primarily additive in nature. Each of the technologies is suitable for use with a different range of materials, which in turn defines the suitable applications of the printer. 3D printing may have started with form and fit testing for prototypes, but the technology has evolved in the past few years to encompass manufacturing products on a mass scale.

With 3D printing, designs are not constrained by manufacturing limitations, and design complexity no longer adds cost. This opens up design avenues and enables the economic production of lighter components. This aspect is critical to the aerospace and automotive industries.

3D printing in metal is being used to manufacture parts in a wide variety of industries. Metals are the fastest growing segment of 3D printing, with printer sales growing at 48% and material sales growing at 32%, according to the IDTechEx report titled, "3D Printing of Metals 2015-2025." 

Adoption by high-value, low-volume industries

The IDTechEx report states that high-value, low-volume industries such as aerospace and biomedical have been the earliest adopters of 3D printing in metal because of the current speed. For example, GE Aviation has invested more than $3 billion to house 3D printers to print 100,000 fuel nozzles by 2020. In addition to titanium, the aerospace industry also is investing in cobalt, nickel, and aluminum alloys to be used in additive manufacturing. Arcam, which manufactures electron beam melting (EBM), has used 3D printers to manufacture more than 50,000 orthopedic implants for the medical industry.

The report states that both industries have a strong need for titanium alloys and combine for a market share of 31% by volume. In addition to titanium, the aerospace industry also is investing in cobalt, nickel, and aluminum alloys to be used in additive manufacturing.

3D printing in metal objects also is being used in the dental industry. According to the report, dental supplier Argen Digital is producing metal substructures to make copings and bridges with the same properties as cast parts.

3D printing in metal is also used for more creative outlets as well as mass production. The report states that the jewelry industry is very invested in 3D printing metal objects. Jewelers were early adaptors of selective laser melting (SLM) technologies, which allow the designer to customize precious metals with relative ease. The jewelry industry is driving 3D printing in precious metals, with gold powder having a 49% market share by revenue.

3D printing, in some ways, is a natural extension for the jewelry industry because:

  • There are no qualifying standards for jewelry
  • Jewelry designers are already good at computer-aided design (CAD)
  • Designers are skilled in finishing and polishing and are accustomed to making items
  • Designers crave artistic freedom and unusual designs. 

3D printing’s profile is growing

Local Motors put 3D printing in metal in display at IMTS 2014 in Chicago with the demonstration of their 3D printed car. The printing process lasted the entire show, using carbon fiber as the material, and ended with the car driving around at the end of the event. Everything on the car that could be integrated into a single piece such as the exterior and the chassis was printed. While it took several days for everything to come together, the concept alone is an example of where 3D printing is going. The technology is enduring its growing pains as users continue to work out the bugs and any potential faults. It is clear, however, that based on IDTech’s report, many industries see 3D printing in metal as the future, and it will become a mainstay in mass production before people realize it.

– Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Learn more about 3D printing in metal from the IDTechEx report here

Learn more about Local Motors’ 3D printed car. 

Key concepts:

  • Additive manufacturing is moving past printing prototypes and is now being used for mass production.
  • 3D printing in metal is the fastest growing segment of 3D printing with the aerospace and medical industries using it for mass production.
  • Some industries, like jewelry, are 3D printing in metal for custom projects.

Consider this

What other industries could use 3D printing in metal in terms of mass production apart from the aerospace and medical industries?

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.