In applications needing light weight and intricate geometries, direct metal laser sintering is emerging as an alternative to traditional metal fabrication techniques.

Charles Murray

February 9, 2018

3 Min Read
3D Printing of Metal Parts Is on the Rise, Expert Says

3D printing is a viable solution for metal parts in applications where the geometries, production volumes, and end goals well are suited to the process, an expert told engineers at the Pacific Design & Manufacturing conference in Anaheim this week.

“Direct metal laser sintering has some huge advantages when the geometry is appropriate,” noted Jeff Schipper, director of special operations at Proto Labs. “But in those situations where traditional manufacturing is more appropriate, you’re going to find direct metal laser sintering to be a lot more expensive.”

In a session titled, “Is 3D printing Right for Your Metal Parts,” Schipper told attendees that direct metal laser sintering is especially appropriate for complicated parts with intricate features. It is also well-suited to applications that call for lightweighting and for integration of multiple components into one.

At Pacific Design & Manufacturing, Jeff Schipper of Proto Labs said that direct metal laser sintering is emerging as a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing methods in some applications. (Source: Design News)

Schipper said that the aerospace industry has used direct metal laser sintering for those reasons. “They’ve been doing it longer and have invested more into it than any other industry,” he told Design News. “By making all those complicated, unmanufacturable parts into one, they’re able to save a lot of weight. And cost, as well.”

Strength of the parts is not an issue, Schipper noted. “You get very high quality, robust physical properties from these metals,” he said. “And it’s not just for basic metals. You have 300-Series stainless steels, as well as titanium, magnesium, and cobalt chrome. For all practical purposes, you’re getting all the same basic properties.”

Schipper told the audience that production volume matters. In general, many users still confine 3D-printed metal parts to low volume applications. However, some European automakers have started to employ 3D-printed metal parts in medium-volume engine applications, he said.

The reason for the rising popularity of direct metal laser sintering, Schipper said, is that it competes directly with traditional manufacturing processes in a variety of key areas. In its ability to make complex features, 3D printing compares well with CNC machining and with casting, he said. It also competes with casting in its ability to create internal features. But its real strength is in applications calling for lightweighting, he said.

For those reasons, the technology is seeing strong growth in medical applications, Schipper told the audience. “Medical customers have been using DMLS for a while, but now they’re taking it to production,” he said. “We’re seeing interest in this area on an almost-daily basis.”

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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