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3D Printing Metal Could Change the Manufacturing Industry

Does the U.S. Need to Follow China's Lead to Close the Skills GapThe concept of 3D printing metal objects has implications that stretch to all areas of life. Consider a time when metal parts can be produced for aircrafts, satellites, and medical implants custom and on demand. Companies are researching 3D printing metal beams and building supplies, meaning an architect can plan a building, and a manufacturer can “print” each of the beams needed. Below is a list of the advances in 3D metal printing and what applications it can have in manufacturing.

3D printing metal beams

Until recently, there were three methods for 3D printing metal, but there were problems in the physical weight of the metal not supporting itself while it’s being printed. To overcome that, researchers built “sacrificial” metal structures to hold together what was being printed and be discarded afterwards. Unfortunately, it became a challenge to separate the newly-printed metal piece from the sacrificial structure supporting it, often damaging the end-product and creating waste along the way. Now, there is a light carbon steel support that objects rest inside of while they are being printed, and then is chemically power-washed off afterwards.

One research team just printed a 90-degree steel overhang, using this carbon steel support system, proving this July, that this new method can print big, heavy objects. Because this solution is so light-weight, there is less waste, and because the support system is so strong, printers could produce huge, complex metal structures as one piece. Learn about the detailed science and chemistry that makes this new process work here.

One company in Amsterdam just got the green light to build a completely 3D printed bridge across a canal. Rather than using the new carbon steel support system, this company will have robots build and break down supports as it prints the bridge.

NASA is 3D printing rocket parts

NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project recently began researching the efficacy of 3D printing parts for rockets. Using an old rocket from the 1960s, NASA researchers replicated engine parts of Saturn V, which propelled men to the moon. They switched out those parts on a rocket with the same engine, and the new parts worked seamlessly with the old rocket.

Because the use of commercial air travel is set to double by 2030 (currently 3.5 billion people per year), NASA will use the technology to print engine parts, to print an entire engine. Printing smaller, more efficient engines could save the airline industry $250 billion a year. NASA selected five technologies this year and last year to study as part of the Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project to make airplanes more efficient.

Until recently, parts of big machines were assembled with screws and bolts. Now, huge pieces could be printed as one, eliminating the weight that comes with assembly. It’s with this thinking that NASA is looking to create fast, smaller engines for commercial airlines. “Researchers will study a new kind of fuel cell, increasing electric motor output with the help of 3D printing, and use of Lithium-Air batteries to store energy…” according to a NASA press release.

Printing metal medical implants

Revolutions in digital healthcare are seeing the dream of “3D-scan-to-parts” for implants in the medical field becoming a reality. Experts say eventually, getting a hip replacement could be as easy as taking an x-ray and printing a custom hip in the surgery room. According the 3Dprint.com, the following items have already successfully been printed.

  • Generic items (hips, knees, shoulder implants, or implants accessories)
  • Unique bespoke items (hearing aids, dental stones, shoe insoles, prosthetics ,and orthopedic implants)
  • Patterns (used in downstream processes to fabricate dental crowns or dental aligners)

In Korea, these applications have worked to save a soldier’s health. In a situation that would have typically called for amputation, a medical team was able to 3D print a new heel bone and implant it into his foot.

With the advent of 3D printing metal, the sky is really the limit. What are some applications for 3D printing metal can you dream up? While it feels like these metal solutions are for the likes of NASA, you could tinker with printing metal in your garage rather than in a lab in the soon enough. As the technology becomes more accessible, you could make your ideas come to life.

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