Knowledge base Manufacturing Processes Explained

Introduction to Metal 3D printing

Written by
Alkaios Bournias Varotsis
In this introduction to metal 3D printing we cover the basic principles of SLM and DMLS. After reading this article you will understand the fundamental mechanics of SLM and DMLS and how these relate to the key benefits and limitations of the technology.

SLM & DMLS: what is the difference?

Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are two metal additive manufacturing processes that belong to the powder bed fusion 3D printing family. The two technologies have a lot of similarities: both use a laser to scan and selectively fuse (or melt) the metal powder particles, bonding them together and building a part layer-by-layer. Also, the materials used in both processes are metals that come in a granular form.

The differences between SLM and DMLS come down to the fundamentals of the particle bonding process (and also patents): SLM uses metal powders with a single melting temperature and fully melts the particles, while in DMLS the powder is composed of materials with variable melting points that fuse on a molecular level at elevated temperatures. Essentially:

SLM produces parts from a single metal, while DMLS produces parts from metal alloys.

Both SLM and DMLS are used in industrial applications to create end-use engineering products. In this article, we use the term metal 3D printing to refer to both processes in general and we describe the basic mechanisms of the fabrication process that are necessary for engineers and designers to understand the benefits and limitations of the technology.

There are other additive manufacturing processes that can be used to produce dense metal parts, such as Electron Beam Melting (EBM) and Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM). Their availability and applications are limited though, so they won't be presented here.

The SLM/DMLS printing process

How does Metal 3D Printing work?

The basic fabrication process for SLM and DMLS are very similar. Here is how it works:

  1. The build chamber is first filled with inert gas (for example argon) to minimize the oxidation of the metal powder and then it is heated to the optimal build temperature.

  2. A thin layer of metal powder is spread over the build platform and a high power laser scans the cross-section of the component, melting (or fusing) the metal particles together and creating the next layer. The entire area of the model is scanned, so the part is built fully solid.

  3. When the scanning process is complete, the build platform moves downwards by one layer thickness and the recoater spreads another thin layer of metal powder. The process is repeated until the whole part is complete.

When the build process is finished, the parts are fully encapsulated in the metal powder. Unlike polymer powder bed fusion process (such as SLS), the parts are attached to the build platform through support structures. Support in metal 3D printing is built using the same material as the part and is always required to mitigate the warping and distortion that may occur due to the high processing temperatures.

When the bin cools to room temperature, the excess powder is manually removed and the parts are typically heat treated while still attached to the build platform to relieve any residual stresses. Then the components are detached from the build plate via cutting, machining or wire EDM and are ready for use or further post-processing.

Schematic of an SLM/DMLS printer

Curious about the cost and available material options for Metal 3D printing?

Characteristics of SLM & DMLS

Printer Parameters

In SLM and DMLS almost all process parameters are set by the machine manufacturer. The layer height used in metal 3D printing varies between 20 to 50 microns and depends on the properties of the metal powder (flowability, particle size distribution, shape etc).

The typical build size of a metal 3D printing system is 250 x 150 x 150 mm, but larger machines are also available (up to 500 x 280 x 360 mm). The dimensionally accuracy that a metal 3D printer can achieve is approximately ± 0.1 mm.

Metal printers can be used of small batch manufacturing, but the capabilities of metal 3D printing systems resemble more the batch manufacturing capabilities of FDM or SLA machines than that of SLS printers: they are restricted by the available print area (XY-direction), as the parts have to be attached to the build platform.

The metal powder in SLM and DMLS is highly recyclable: typically less than 5% is wasted. After each print, the unused powder is collected, sieved and then topped up with fresh material to the level required for the next built.

Waste in metal printing though comes in the form of support structure, which are crucial for the successful completion of a build but can increase the amount of the required material (and the cost) drastically.

Small batch manufacturing of a bicycle frame using SLM. Courtesy: Renishaw and Empire Cycles

Layer Adhesion

Metal SLM and DMLS parts have almost isotropic mechanical and thermal properties. They are solid with very little internal porosity (less than 0.2 - 0.5%).

Metal printed parts have higher strength and hardness and are often more flexible than parts that are manufactured using a traditional method. However, they are more prone to fatigue.

For example, take a look at the mechanical properties of the AlSi10Mg EOS metal 3D printing alloy and the A360 die cast alloy. These two materials have a very similar chemical composition, high in silicon and magnesium. The printed parts have superior mechanical properties and higher hardness compared to the wrought material.

Due to the granular form of the unprocessed material, the as-built surface roughness (Ra) of a metal 3D printed part is approximately 6 - 10 μm. This relatively high surface roughness can partially explain the lower fatigue strength.

AlSi10Mg (3D printing alloy) A360 (Die cast alloy)
Yield Strength (0.2% strain) * XY : 230 MPa Z : 230 MPa 165 MPa
Tensile Strength * XY : 345 MPa Z : 350 MPa 317 MPa
Modulus * XY : 70 GPa Z : 60 GPa 71 GPa
Elongation at break * XY : 12% Z : 11% 3.5%
Hardness ** 119 HBW 75 HBW
Fatigue Strength ** 97 MPa 124 MPa

* : Heat treated: annealed at 300℃ for 2 hours

** : Tested on as-built samples

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Support structure & part orientation

Support structures are always required in metal printing, due to the very high processing temperature and they are usually built using a lattice pattern.

Support in metal 3D printing serves 3 different functions:

  • They offer a suitable platform for the next layer to be built upon.
  • They anchor the part to the build plate and they prevent warping.
  • They act as a heat sink drawing heat away from the part and allowing it to cool at a more controlled rate.

Parts are often oriented at an angle to minimize the likelihood of warping and maximize part strength in critical directions. However, this will increase the amount of required support, the build time, the material waste and (ultimately) the total cost.

Warping can be also minimized using randomized scan patterns. This scanning strategy prevents the buildup of residual stresses in any particular direction and will add a characteristic surface texture to the part.

Since the cost of metal printing is very high, simulations are often used to predict the behavior of the part during processing. Topology optimisation algorithms are also used not only to maximize the mechanical performance and create lightweight parts but also to minimize the need of support structure and the likelihood of warping.

A metal bracket before support removal oriented in a 45o angle. Courtesy: Concept Laser

Hollow Sections & Lightweight Structures

Unlike polymer powder bed fusion processes like SLS, large hollow sections are not commonly used in metal printing as support structures cannot be easily removed.

For internal channels larger than Ø 8 mm, it is recommended to use diamond or tear-drop cross sections instead of a circular, as they require no support structures. More design guidelines on SLM & DMLS can be found in this this article.

As an alternative to hollow sections, parts can be designed with skin and cores. Skin and cores are processed using different laser power and scan speed, resulting in different material properties. Using skin and cores is very useful when manufacturing parts with large solid section, as they significantly reduce the print time and the likelihood of warping and produce parts with high stability and excellent surface quality.

Using a lattice structure is also a common strategy in metal 3D printing for reducing the weight of a part. Topology optimization algorithms can also aid in the design of organic light-weight form.

Removing the powder around metal parts produced by the SLM printing process

Common SLM & DMLS materials

SLM and DMLS can produce parts from a large range of metals and metal alloys including aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, cobalt chrome and inconel. These materials cover the needs of most industrial application, from aerospace to medical. Precious metals, such as gold, platinum, palladium and silver can also be processed, but their application are fringe and mainly limited to jewelry making.

The cost of the metal powder is very high. For example a kilogram of stainless steel 316L powder cost approximately $350 - $450. For this reason, minimizing the part volume and the need for support is key to keeping the cost as low as possible.

A key strength of metal 3D printing is its compatibility with high strength materials, such as nickel or cobalt-chrome superalloys, that are very difficult to process with traditional manufacturing methods. Significant cost and time savings can be made, by using metal 3D printing to create a near-net-shape part that can is later post-processed to a very high surface finish.

Aluminium alloys
  • Good mechanical & thermal properties
  • Low density
  • Good electrical conductivity
  • Low hardness
Stainless steel & tool steel
  • High wear resistance
  • Great hardness
  • Good ductility and weldability
Titanium alloys
  • Corrosion resistance
  • Excellent strength-to-weight ratio
  • Low thermal expansion
  • Biocompatible
Cobalt-Chrome superalloys
  • Excellent wear & corrosion resistanc
  • Great properties at elevated temperatures
  • Very high hardness
  • Biocompatible
Nickel superalloys (Inconel)
  • Excellent mechanical properties
  • High corrosion resistance
  • Temperature resistant up to 1200oC
  • Used in extreme environments
Precious metals
  • Used in jewellery making
  • Not widely available

Curious about the cost and available material options for Metal 3D printing?

Post Processing

Various post processing techniques are used to improve the mechanical properties, accuracy and appearance of the metal printed parts.

Compulsory post processing steps include the removal of the loose powder and the support structures, while heat treatment (thermal annealing) is commonly used to relieve the residual stresses and improve the mechanical properties of the part.

CNC machining can be employed for dimensionally crucial features (such as holes or threads). Media blasting, metal plating, polishing and micro-machining can improve the surface quality and fatigue strength of a metal printed part.

Satellite antenna manufactured using DMLS. Courtesy: Concept Laser and Optisys LLC

Benefits & Limitations of Metal 3D Printing

Here are the key advantages and disadvantages of metal 3D printing processes:

  • Metal 3D printing processes be used to manufacture complex, bespoke parts with geometries that traditional manufacturing methods are unable to produce.
  • Metal 3D printed parts can be topologically optimized to maximize their performance while minimizing their weight and the total number of components in an assembly.
  • Metal 3D printed parts have excellent physical properties and the available material range includes difficult to process otherwise materials, such as metal superalloys.

  • The material and manufacturing costs connected with metal 3D printing is high, so these technologies are not suitable for parts that can be easily manufactured with traditional methods.
  • The build size of the metal 3D printing systems is limited, as precise manufacturing conditions and process control are required.
  • Already existing designs may not be suitable for metal 3D printing and may need to be altered.

Detailed design guidelines form metal 3D printing are given in this article of the Knowledge Base. The main characteristics of SLM and DMLS systems are summarized in the table below:

Metal 3D printing (SLM / DMLS)
Materials Metals & metal alloys (aluminium, steel, titanium etc)
Dimensional accuracy ± 0.1 mm
Typical build size 250 x 150 x 150 mm
(up to up to 500 x 280 x 360 mm)
Common layer thickness 20 – 50 μm
Support Always required

Rules of Thumb

  • Metal 3D printing is most suitable for complex, bespoke parts that are difficult or very costly to manufacture with traditional methods.
  • Minimizing the need for support structures will greatly reduce the cost of metal printing.
  • Topology optimization is essential for maximizing the added benefits of using metal printing.
  • Metal 3D printed parts have excellent mechanical properties and can be manufactured from a wide range of engineering materials, including metal superalloys.

Written by
Alkaios's picture
Alkaios Bournias Varotsis

Mechanical Engineer working at 3D Hubs @bv_alkaios

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