It’s hard to find an industry where 3D printing doesn’t have the potential to fit in and make a massive impact, and yet the type of material that is used for printing will decide the properties of the final product. There are several materials and characteristics to consider before deciding on an input for a printing project.
Because the list of usable materials for 3D printing is a long one and is growing quickly, creating an exhaustive study of everything that can be found on the market would be counterproductive. Here. The focus is on the most commonly used materials that can easily be found anywhere; plastics, metals and resin.
Characteristics to look out for
With how wildly some of these materials, such as PLA and titanium, can vary from each other, judging each material with the same yardstick can be a tall order. That said, there are still a few important metrics that can be used to judge how suitable a powder is.
This denotes how easily a printer can create a product using a given material. Measuring the print efficiency of a material involves looking at how long it takes a printer to create the product, the accuracy of the printed product, and how often printing operations can fail when using a particular material.
How much pressure a printed product can endure before it breaks apart is a particularly important consideration for industrial applications. Materials that are easy to print with, such as the polymer PET, can also end up having some of the lowest tensile strength when compared to a durable material like titanium.
There are many characteristics that are not necessarily positive or negative, and producers will have to judge these depending on what they’re looking to print. Materials such as aluminium, for example, will make for more malleable products than nickel or titanium.
Other similar characteristics include things such as sphericity. The sphericity of a metal powder has a direct impact on the packing density of the final product, affecting its stability and tensile strength. This is a primary consideration when we look at high quality metal powders.
The entry-level printer most people land on when first experimenting with 3D printing is a fused deposition modelling (FDM) printer. These printers operate by melting a given material and creating melded layers to form the final product. The most accessible material for FDM printers tends to be thermoplastic filament, hence its popularity.
There are many different types of plastic filament, and they can all differ from each other to surprising degrees. PLA is known as the go-to filament for beginners, and for good reason. PLA is one of the easiest materials to print with and is also quite low maintenance. Users won’t need to fulfill special conditions to complete a print with PLA, such as having a heated bed or sustaining high temperatures. An underappreciated upside of PLA is the fact that it is biodegradable where other materials might not be.
Although they started off as niche materials used for small-scale prototyping and small component manufacturing, metal powders have made a name for themselves due to their adaptability. The growth of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and selective laser melting (SLM) have made metal powders a reliable choice for a range of applications, including aerospace manufacturing, biotech, and detailed prototyping.
Steel has been in use for industrial manufacturing before the advent of 3D printing. Its proximity to traditional manufacturing is a trait that carries over into additive manufacturing as well. Steel powder is some of the most abundant and cheap metal powder you can get for 3D printing. Stainless steel has anti-corrosive properties and high durability, which is why it is often used in the chemical industry.
Other types of metal powders such as aluminium, titanium and nickel alloy all have their unique uses as well. Aluminium’s balance of malleability and strength makes it a popular choice for the automotive supply chain, while titanium and nickel alloy are favourites for aerospace manufacturing.
As far as 3D printing goes, resin is a bit of a niche material. This liquid polymer material is limited by relatively low resistance and flexibility in comparison to metal powders. That said, resin is uniquely placed to fill certain business demands.
Resin excels as a material for small scale models and prototype production. This is because manufacturers can use UV lights to trace specific and minute details into the polymer before printing begins. The resin then solidifies around those traces to form a final product. This allows for intricate designs ideal for prototyping to be created.
Grow with 3d printing
Picking the right material is the first step towards scaling up with the reliable art of additive manufacturing. Get an edge over the competition by understanding the type of input that your products demand, whether that’s for prototyping or heavy-duty manufacturing.