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Introduction to metal 3D printing
Written by Alkaios Bournias Varotsis
3D printing or CNC? Find the best technology to produce your metal parts
SLM & DMLS: what's 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.
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. Click here for more information on metal Binder Jetting.
How does metal 3D printing work?
The basic fabrication process for SLM and DMLS are very similar. Here is how it works:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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Characteristics of SLM & DMLS
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.
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% in the as-printed state and close to none after thermal processing).
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
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 optimization 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.
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.
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 applications 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.
Good mechanical & thermal properties
Good electrical conductivity
|Stainless steel & tool steel||
High wear resistance
Good ductility and weldability
Excellent strength-to-weight ratio
Low thermal expansion
Excellent wear & corrosion resistanc
Great properties at elevated temperatures
Very high hardness
|Nickel superalloys (Inconel)||
Excellent mechanical properties
High corrosion resistance
Temperature resistant up to 1200oC
Used in extreme environments
Used in jewellery making
Not widely available
Compare the costs of metal 3D printing
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.
Learn more about CNC machining
Benefits & Limitations of Metal 3D Printing
Here are the key advantages and disadvantages of metal 3D printing processes:
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|
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.
Learn the difference between metal 3D printing and CNC