3D printing stainless steel industry

Reaching for the skies…the soaring potential of 3D printing technology

Joanne McIntyre - 9 April 2015

The practical application of 3D printing technology is progressing rapidly and it will eventually have a wide ranging effect on the stainless steel industry.

About the author

Mrs Joanne McIntyre
Joanne McIntyre is the Editor in Chief of Stainless Steel World magazine, and Conference Coordinator for the Duplex Seminar & Summit.
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3D printing is a technology which has captured our imaginations, but real understanding of how it can be practically applied in industry can prove elusive. How far has it progressed beyond personalized phone cases and the sensationalized case of the 3D-printed hand-gun? Actually quite far, as Stainless Steel World editor David Sear discovered during his visit to the Inside 3D Printing conference and exhibition held recently in Berlin.

The conference was kicked off by Terry Wohlers, who is a recognized authority on the subject. He revealed that interest in 3D printing is rapidly being translated into investments and practical applications by manufacturing companies operating in a wide range of sectors. Factors helping to drive this development include new equipment which can operate at faster speeds, patent expiration which is opening up competition, and the wide range of machines available at prices starting from hundreds to millions of dollars.

Mr Wohlers also confirmed that 3D printed parts can most certainly be made from stainless steels, although not (yet) feasibly in the dimensions likely to be of interest to readers of this blog. As David reports, Mr Wohlers also outlined drawbacks that especially apply to 3D printed metal objects, and in particular large or thick section items. These include the slow manufacturing speed and the possible need for finishing treatments, such as stress relief, machining, surface treatments, etc. Interestingly, he added that some developers are looking to combine a 3D printer with CNC equipment in a single machine.

A few commonly held myths about 3D printing were also dispelled during the event. Firstly that it’s cheap; this simply is not the case, as for example base materials for plastic items can be up to 100 times more expensive than the equivalent plastics required for conventional processing. The second myth to be busted was that 3D printing is a fast technique. Mr Wohlers cited the case of an Inconel 718 component which had a build time of 14 days! “Powder-build fusion systems are simply not that fast yet,” he stated.

Despite the current drawbacks however, the application of 3D printing is sure to increase in future.

The technology can be expected to capture an increasing share of mainstream manufacturing in addition to its established role in rapid prototyping. 3D printing enables engineers to break free from restrictions imposed by standard manufacturing techniques. A good example comes from the aerospace sector, where engineers used topology optimisation to reconfigure a specific component. Their component produced via 3D printing has the same strength as the original but requires less metal, and hence has a lower weight.

The possibilities for 3D printing, as David explains in his report, are out of this world. By happy coincidence, on March 31 NASA announced the release of Vesta Trek, a free web-based application that provides detailed visualizations of Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in our solar system (pictured). The application includes 3D printer-exportable topography so users can literally print their own asteroid! 3D printing already has many uses closer to home of course; read David’s full report on the event for more information and photos.

Header Image by: Photo ©NASA

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