Mark Barfoot Mark Barfoot
Director of AM Programs

Introduction to AM: Five Steps for Getting Started

February 3, 2020

At the start of a new year, many manufacturers find themselves considering new technologies and techniques. Increasingly, these include additive manufacturing (AM). But where to begin? This article will walk you through five steps for navigating metal 3D printing.

No. 1: Explore

As you begin your metal 3D printing quest, explore the many solutions out there, each with its own strengths, and each represented by multiple companies. This can be confusing as vendors market the benefits of their systems and, in many cases, label similar technologies differently. One technology may be great for one company, but not for another, depending on the application. Example: wire-based directed energy deposition (wire-DED) versus laser powder bed fusion system (L-PBF). DED builds large, near net shape parts quickly, to 25kg/hr, but has large layer lines, which typically require post machining afterward. An L-PBF system, however, excels at finely detailed small parts, but often requires long build times, which can be cost-prohibitive as parts get larger.

No. 2: Invest Time

Many companies expect to put an AM machine into their facility one day and build production parts the next. This rarely happens, because of the learning curve. Expect to invest 6 to 12 months before becoming fully knowledgeable on the system as you will need to learn how to adjust the program settings for your specific material, geometry and machine; how to utilize support structures to hold the parts while building; and steps for ensuring proper heat transfer and cooling. Be sure to account for this learning curve in your ROI calculations.

No. 3: Don’t Assume Part Conversion

Converting an existing CNC-machined part design to additive typically will not be cost-effective or practical. Metal 3D printing is most successful for parts designed specifically with features and geometries that cannot be made with traditional manufacturing. In addition, the technology often enables the combination of multiple parts into a single piece, which can eliminate assembly time, reduce weight from mounting hardware and result in an optimized part.

No. 4: Don’t Assume Installation Without Modifications

Most metal 3D printing systems require some level of facility/safety precautions. Many metal systems deal with powder, and thus require specialized air conditioning/humidity control to ensure that the powder does not deteriorate or change its performance over time. Powder handling typically requires personal protective equipment, such as respirators, gloves and overalls, to ensure operator safety. Powder also can be a fire and explosion hazard if not handled properly and may require proper storage and fire suppression systems. In some cases, these requirements cost as much, if not more, than the machine, depending on local building codes. Make sure you find out what is required.

No. 5: Consider Outsourcing

Whether it makes sense to bring the technology inhouse or work with existing service bureaus that have the machines, expertise and ability to produce your parts is not a simple decision. However, I recommend outsourcing initial trial parts. This provides an opportunity to validate parts without being fully invested and knowledgeable on the equipment and process.

Persistence Pays

Above all else, do not get discouraged; there is a lot to learn. I have been in the AM world for nearly 20 years, and I still struggle to keep up with the nuances of the various processes and the rapid pace of innovation.

Remember, you do not have to do it on your own. Events such as AMUG, RAPID/TCT, formnext and 3DMP’s 3D Metal Printing and Tech Tour connect attendees with technologies and industry experts. EWI’s Additive Manufacturing Consortium provides another educational and networking opportunity. Other organizations such as America Makes and ASTM International offer industry events. Metal 3D printing can be challenging, but it also offers huge benefits. So let’s get started.  3DMP

Industry-Related Terms: Bed, Hardware, LASER, Layer, Lines, Transfer
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: EWI



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