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Xerox® ElemX™ Liquid Metal Printer

Metal 3D Printer Selection Begins with the End in Mind

By Pete Basiliere - Founder, Monadnock Insights The choice of 3D printing technology, whether using plastics, composites, or metals, begins with the end in mind. The items you want determines their material, which determines the best technology for printing the part. From there, choose the 3D printer provider that offers the technology and printer models that are appropriate for your application.

For example, let's say that you want to make aluminum load-bearing brackets that are components of a larger device. Your supply chain logistics staff dictate a quick turnaround, while a low total cost is required for adequate profit margins. On the surface, five 3D printing technologies offer the means for producing that bracket: binder jetting, directed energy deposition, powder bed fusion, sheet lamination, and liquid metal. However, the part requires a blend of availability, cost, material, and performance characteristics. That leaves two options: powder bed fusion and liquid metal.

Comparing the two technologies will determine which is most appropriate for use and, therefore, which vendor to consider. The initial evaluation should focus on three areas: quality, total cost of ownership, and staff skillset.

 ElemX 3D Liquid Metal printed drive hub

ElemX 3D Liquid Metal printed drive hub

Evaluate metal 3D printers based on their ability to replicate parts with the same quality as the original component. You, and your customers, have certain expectations regarding the fit, finish, and use of your parts, whether for one order or multiple orders placed over time.

Quality

Characteristic

Powder Bed Fusion

Liquid Metal

Accuracy: Ability to precisely print as designed

Layer thickness: 0.025 - 0.06 mm

Wall thickness: 1.0 - 10 mm

Density: >99.0%

Dimensional tolerance (without post-processing): <0.1 mm to 0.3 mm

Layer thickness: 0.24 mm minimum

Wall thickness: 3 mm

Density: >98.5%

Dimensional tolerance (without post-processing): <0.5 mm to > 0.6 mm

Strength: Performance of finished parts compared to internal and external standards

Comparable to cast parts; high strength aluminum cracks; may be brittle with low elongation; heat treatments improve strength

Material properties as good or better than input material

Finish: Average roughness

Surface texture after printing: Ra values from 4.5 - 20 μm

The Surface roughness for our process after printing is 28 μm +-5μm

ElemX 3D Liquid Metal printed docking socket

ElemX 3D Liquid Metal printed docking socket

A new machine's total capital cost depends as much on whether similar systems are in place as it does on the purchase price. Expanding a current facility, especially one with space set aside for the 3D printer, is much less expensive than retrofitting a structure or constructing a new building. Similarly, a new machine's operating cost may involve unanticipated expenditures ranging from protective gear (gloves and glasses) to high-end personal protective equipment, with breathing apparatus to specially stored and carefully used gasses.

Total Cost of Operation

Characteristic

Powder Bed Fusion

Liquid Metal

3D printer capital cost - Investment cost for printer and auxiliary equipment

$100,000 to greater than $1 million; average of $467,635[1]; additional cost for sintering furnace

Equivalent to mid-range PBF

Cost includes printer, chiller, slicer software, build plate removal tool, and initial supplies kit

Facility capital cost - Investment cost for facility build or retrofit and safety systems

May exceed the cost of the 3D printer based on structure costs and equipment for safe material handling of gasses and reactive Al alloy powders[2]

$1 million +

Basic safety measures around heat and the argon gas used in the printhead area

Utilizes basic shop infrastructure such as compressed air and 480v power source

 

Production speed - Process time for 125 mm (5 inch) cube

Varies with build size, scanning scheme, laser power and beam size, and the number of lasers;

Process time for 125 mm (5 inch) cube: 0.5 - 3 days[3]

Varies with part; up to 0.5 pounds per hour max build rate

Material cost - Purchase price for materials used to 3D print the part, including production and post-processing waste

Material cost includes powder used by the item, support materials, powder loss during cleaning, and build plate used in printing; Metal powders range up to $250/kilogram[4]

Commercial off-the-shelf A356 (Al4008) aluminum alloy; cost includes support materials but no powder removal or build plate; aluminum wire ranges up to $70/kg

Post-processing cost - Expense for auxiliary activities

Process gas cost, support trimming, build plate must be cut away, sintering

Support trimming; build plate removal without cutting; no sintering

Just as a new driver does not buy a new car before learning to drive, ensure that you have the in-house skills necessary to implement metal 3D printing. No doubt you have designers and operators who will jump at the chance to participate in an exciting new technology and product offering. However, the learning curve for Powder Bed Fusion is very steep compared to liquid metal 3D printing and must factor into your evaluation. Fortunately, various universities, trade organizations, and technology providers offer training courses for designers and operators.

Skillset

Characteristic

Powder Bed Fusion

Liquid Metal

Designers - Engineers or CAD specialists who create the digital models to be 3D printed

Requires an understanding of PBF design guidelines, especially the need for external, accessible supports and ensuring powder removal from hollow areas

Requires an understanding of LM design guidelines, especially orientation of the part on its build plate

Operators - Personnel who run the 3D printer and support staff

Must recognize PBF parameters and the influence of adjustments on the as-built part, including the interaction of the process heat source with the feedstock, and problems associated with inadequate preparation and setup of the build platform, handling and storage of feedstock, and application of the gases[5]

Must recognize LM parameters and the influence of adjustments to the printhead and feed rate on the built part, and handling of raw materials

Beginning with the end in mind is key to successful 3D printing of aluminum and any other material. Assess your requirements and weigh the relative merits of the different technologies from a quality, total cost of ownership, and skillset perspective before you buy.

Pete Basiliere

Pete Basiliere provides research-based insights on 3D printing and digital-printing hardware, software and materials, best practices, go-to-market strategies and technology trends. Before founding Monadnock Insights, Pete spent eleven years as Gartner’s Research Vice President – Additive Manufacturing. Pete’s full bio can be found here.

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