There has been a rapid rate of innovation in 3D printing in the last few years. The printer has been used to print a thousand new things and make use of lots of new material. The new ability to print using Aluminum is seen as the ultimate game changer.
Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS Technology)
DMLS technology is used in the metal 3D printing process. The build platform is layered with metal powder. A high beam of light then melts parts of the powder as the first layer of the model is being printed. When the first layer is completed, the built platform then lowers another layer height and repeats the above process.
A support structure is printed beforehand and removed after the aluminium model has dried up. A heat treatment is applied after the aluminum model has been completed. Without the support structures, overhangs or walls at angles below 540 degrees may be at a risk of collapsing during printing. The structures are auto generated. After their removal, the model is sandblasted to give it a smooth finish.
What are the advantages of using aluminum?
Plastic has been the core material used in printing. It has problems of weakness which make it unsuitable for various manufacturing activities. Aluminum is stronger and can be used as a final product in manufacturing processes.
The metal 3D printer can create very precise structures for fitting specific areas such as machine parts or automotive parts using aluminum powder. Therefore, the 3D printer can be used to produce fully functional parts and not just models of items that are to be printed. Due to the precision, the aluminum powder can also be used in the printing of jewellery.
The printer can handle details as low as 0.25mm. This is precise enough to handle embossed text of about 0.4mmm in height and thickness and a depth of 0.15mm.
- The look of the final product
The finished aluminum model comes in a natural gray finish that looks a little shinier than traditional aluminum from the mills. It is also more matter and grayer. This characteristic makes it ideal for jewelry and for use in creating other decorative pieces.
You can design holes with a minimum diameter of about 1mm. Therefore, you can create a meshwork for use in different applications. However, the current technology cannot print interlinking objects, hinged (just like chains) or nested objects (objects that float in each other) due to the fact that support structures are a necessity.
In addition to the above advantages, aluminum is a sustainable material found in large quantities on earth’s crust. The material is not only durable and lightweight but also infinitely recyclable. This contrasts the use of plastic, which although recyclable, it is not sustainable and environmentally friendly.
- Thermal and electrical conductivity
Aluminum is known for its excellent heat and thermal conductivity properties. Given its weight, it is almost as good as copper. With the ability to be 3D printed, aluminum solves one of the biggest printing headaches; Printing conductive parts. It can be used in the printing of electrical and electronic parts with ease.
- Energy efficiency
Unlike other metals, aluminum has a low density and melting point. Therefore, it uses less energy to melt during the printing process. One of the biggest problems in 3D printing is high energy consumption, especially in metal printing. Luckily, the use of aluminum will considerably bring down the energy requirement for 3D printers.
There are steps towards the use of 3D printing in food and pharmaceutical production industries. However, most of the materials used in 3D printing may not be used for food packaging due to a high level of toxic substances or the likelihood that they will alter the taste of food. However, aluminum is tasteless, non-toxic and odorless. This makes it ideal for packaging medicine and food. In the near future, these industries may use 3D printing to print packaging materials right from their desktop printers while ensuring safety and preserving the quality of their products.
These qualities of aluminum bring 3D printing closer to being used as a means of producing final products in various industries. Many small and medium sized items can be produced with 3D printing rather than the conventional processes if other challenges such as speed are sorted.
Indeed aluminum has changed the face of 3D printing. It has expanded the scope of printing and strengthened some areas where 3D printing was seen as weak.