8 Questions to Ask (and Answer!) When Evaluating Metal Additive Manufacturing

January 26, 2022

The universe of manufacturing can be a complicated space to navigate. With a wide range of options for fabricating parts and other core components, regardless of industry, it’s difficult to know which method is ideal for your application.

Metal additive manufacturing (AM) is one of many options. Prized for its ability to produce complex parts geometries with traditionally faster turnaround times than other manufacturing methods, metal AM can be a gamechanger for producing parts without compromising design, quality, or performance.

When initially considering metal AM, however, it can be difficult to know if it’s the right manufacturing method for your desired application.

Below, we’ll discuss eight key questions to ask yourself and your manufacturing partners when evaluating metal AM. By answering these questions, you’ll have a clearer idea of what this cutting-edge solution can bring to your operations.

1. What is metal AM and how does it work?

Metal additive manufacturing is the process of 3D printing parts using metal AM printers. At Velo3D, for example, we offer an advanced end-to-end solution that goes pushes the limits beyond what conventional AM printers can achieve.

Our end-to-end solution features a synergy of four distinct components working together as one: print preparation software (Flow™), next-generation metal 3D printers (Sapphire®, Sapphire® 1mz, and Sapphire® XC), quality assurance software (Assure™), and the underlying manufacturing process that binds it all together, Intelligent Fusion®.

Our print preparation software, Flow™, operates within native CAD workflows to prepare part designs for print. These build files can be printed on any Velo3D Sapphire® printer, using the same material, anywhere in the world.

Sapphire® prints parts using a process called laser powder-bed fusion (LPBF). With Sapphire®, an ultra-thin layer of metal powder is laid down on a build plane, then heated to its melting point using high-power lasers, and finally fused to the layers beneath them, building a fully realized part from the ground up. An interesting note: in Velo3D’s printing process, our proprietary printing method is executed in a way that mostly eliminates the need for support structures, which drastically reduces post-processing and enables previously impossible geometries.

Quality assurance software, known as Assure™, is also integrated into the Velo3D printing process. By analyzing every layer of the print as the tool is running, engineers are given detailed reports to ensure that the print was successful, which can help in part validation.

Gluing it all together is Intelligent Fusion®, which is the underlying manufacturing process that enables Velo3D’s end-to-end metal additive manufacturing solution (Flow™, Sapphire®, and Assure™) through which parts that were previously considered impossible to manufacture are printed without compromising design, quality, or performance.

2. Is this a legit technology or is it just for making prototypes and paperweights?

In the past, metal AM may have been primarily used for prototyping because fast turnaround times made it easier for companies to leverage metal AM to rapidly iterate on designs. As the technology has advanced, however, it’s become more sophisticated and repeatable.

Today, the advanced metal AM process pioneered by Velo3D is creating a viable alternative for parts manufacturing which can be leveraged to design and print more complex parts and create more agile supply chains.

With Velo3D, for example, Flow™ generates a Golden Print file for a part, which can be sent to any Velo3D machine anywhere in the world to produce a part with the exact same specifications.

3. What materials can you print using metal AM and what are their properties?

One of the major benefits of advanced metal AM is its ability to print using a wide range of materials. Often, these materials are high-strength alloys that can withstand the strains of high heat, high-pressure environments. The materials currently qualified for print with Velo3D are:

  • Inconel 718
  • Inconel 625
  • Aluminum F357
  • Titanium 64
  • GRCop-42
  • Hastelloy® X
  • Hastelloy® C22
  • Scalmalloy®
  • Amperprint® 0233 Haynes® 282®1

Additionally, there are multiple materials in development, including: Aluminum AI 6061.

At Velo3D, we’re always looking to add qualified materials to add to our end-to-end solution. The qualified material development process is often driven by customer demand and requirements. This process is done in close collaboration with customers and typically takes 3-6 months of development and testing.

4. Do I have to buy a printer, or can I just get parts printed somewhere?

The short answer is, no, Velo3D customers do not need to buy a printer to manufacture 3D printed parts. But our customers have a choice. They can either buy a system or they can immediately start printing the parts they need through one of our global contract manufacturing partners who already have established printing systems and workflows.

Velo3D sells a complete end-to-end metal AM solution that enables innovators the design freedom to build complex, high-value metal parts never thought possible with global repeatability and scale. We offer a family of metal AM printing solutions in our portfolio from our Sapphire® (best used for development work and low-volume production of highly complex parts) to our Production Scale Sapphire® XC system for large-volume production and bigger, more complex parts.

With Velo3D it’s an easy transition from you to CM and back to you again. Because of the simplicity of our solution, one Golden Print File can be printed on any Velo3D machine anywhere in the world running the same material, which opens a world of possibilities for part manufacturing.

5. Can I print whatever I want? Are there limits to design geometries?

With the Velo3D advanced metal AM solution, there is nearly unlimited design freedom in the types of geometries that can be achieved. Some geometries that have long been challenging to metal AM are printable with Velo3D. These geometries that include:

  • Horizontal overhangs down to zero degrees without supports
  • Extremely small circular holes or perforations
  • Enclosed domes of all sizes without supports
  • Conical surfaces, thin pins, and super thin leak-tight walls
  • High aspect ratios up to 6000:1 for 1-meter-high parts
  • And more

The Velo3D printing process can achieve many of these challenging geometries without the need for support structures. However, some of these geometries, when done at larger scales, may require more supports than others.

6. Should I print this part just because it is printable? How does metal AM add value to a part’s design?

At Velo3D, our team of experts would never push anyone towards advanced metal AM unless it was the best application for their needs. We’ve always said, if a part can be CNC machined, for example, it should be.

Where metal Am should be considered is in two key scenarios: geometries that cannot be machined and for part consolidation.

One of the many ways metal AM can add value to a part is found in the design process. Velo3D’s Flow™ software makes it easy for engineers to find new efficiencies in the part design itself.

These efficiencies can be part consolidation that reduces the part’s overall weight, new geometries that increase throughput or output, and much more. These changes in part quality can be dramatic to the overall cost of operations.

7. Does metal AM make financial sense for my application?

This question is a bit more difficult to give a direct answer to because every project is unique. Also, there are multiple iterations of metal AM that all come with their own properties, costs, advantages, and disadvantages. At Velo3D, we use laser powder-bed fusion, which is distinct from other types of metal AM processes like selective laser melting or direct energy disposition, for example.

The type of project also impacts cost. Depending on the size, complexity, quantity, material requirements, functional conditions that part must withstand, if the part is a prototype or for production; there are factors that account for the overall project cost. Broadly speaking, however, metal AM can be cost effective or cheaper than comparable manufacturing

For example, if you’re printing a simple bracket that can be manufactured in high volumes by traditional manufacturing methods (casting, molding, CNC machining, welding, etc.) it likely would not make financial sense to use metal AM. If you are manufacturing 1000s of a part in mass quantities, metal AM might also not be the best application.

However, if you are consolidating a part that may be made up of 100s of pieces into one single part, or if you are building high-value complex geometries that cannot be attained by traditional manufacturing means, the cost savings in metal AM can be immense. There are also hidden costs in logistics and lead times that need to be factored into the equation. Using an end-to-end solution like Velo3D can streamline supply chains which can help reduce built-in costs of other manufacturing methods. When analyzing the full scope of a project, advanced metal AM can be a much more cost-effective option.

8. Can you scale AM for production?

Those early days of metal AM as an engine for prototyping was largely out of necessity. Because the technology wasn’t sophisticated enough to enable repeatability in getting the same exact part twice, the resulting parts produced through metal AM were largely one-offs.

As metal AM has evolved, three key factors have helped enable its scalability for production.

First, better printer calibration has led to unprecedented levels of repeatability. The combination of the Golden Print file, the built in one-click calibration of the machine and controlling the printer hardware, sensor data, machine health, in-situ monitoring, and atmospheric conditions of the build chamber, engineers can be confident in knowing that the printing process will be the same with each printed part.

Secondly, the print preparation process has been streamlined to remove room for error. In previous iterations of metal AM, CAD files were translated into dozens of build files, each representing a potential variance in the printing process. By contrast, the Velo3D system translates CAD files into a single build file for Sapphire® printers, which eliminates potential points of failure in the print.

The final key to scalability is universality. At the end of the design and preprint process, teams are left with a Golden Print File, or a single build file that works on any Velo3D printer. By having a digital warehouse of inventory, enabled by the repeatability outlined above, any Velo3D print file can be printed on any Velo3D printer, anywhere in the world. This universality unlocks a level of scalability in parts manufacturing that has never existed in metal AM until now. This means you can instantly respond to market demands by using either your existing fleet of machines or by leveraging a global network of contract manufacturers.

Do you have any other questions about metal AM? Be sure to ask our team of experts today.

  1. Powder is produced by Höganäs under License from Haynes International, Inc.

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About the Author

Amir Iliaifar

Director of Content

Amir Iliaifar is the Director of Content at Velo3D where he oversees the production and distribution of Velo3D’s global digital content marketing initiatives. Prior to joining the company, Amir worked for a leading professional drone manufacturer, several SaaS companies, and as an automotive tech journalist. He holds a Master of Arts in Digital Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.