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Why Use 3D Metal Printing Prototyping for Manufacturing?

Prototyping allows you to test the feelfunctionlook, and durability of a designed component before sending it for manufacturing. This test run removes risk from your investment and increases end-customer satisfaction.

Today, there are more ways than ever to prototype a metal component. Since they all have their positives, let’s look at each prototyping method and how it compares with additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) prototyping.

Options for Metal Part Prototyping

There are many ways of developing a metal prototype, including:

    • 3D printing

    • CNC machining

    • Sheet metal fabrication

    • Extrusion

    • Casting

3D metal printing

During the 3D metal printing process, a high-powered laser selectively binds together metal particles on the print bed, while the machine evenly distributes layers of metallic powder. 

Plastic, which is initially less costly, can substitute for metal in earlier prototyping stages. But when you’re ready to test functionality, a metal prototype is a must.

CNC machining

CNC machining uses computerized controls to operate a set of multipoint rotary cutting tools. As the tools rotate and move across the surface of the metal, they remove excess material to achieve the desired shape and size of your prototype. This process can work with a variety of metals, including:

    •  Aluminum
    • Steel
    • Titanium
    • Zinc
    • Magnesium

While a small part can be made in a matter of hours, larger, more complex parts may take weeks using CNC machining. Additionally, unlike 3D metal printing prototyping, there is massive material waste during the process (up to 50% of the raw material), increasing overall costs.

Sheet metal fabrication

Sheet metal fabrication involves forming a piece of metal into the desired shape through bending, stretching, and removal of material. The process can be done by a laser-guided machine cutter or manual processes to create flexible, weldable prototypes.

Although pieces are flexible, the viscosity of some metals does not allow for complex shapes or designs. The process is also typically more labor-intensive than other manufacturing techniques, which can raise your overall costs.

Metal extrusion

During the extrusion process, a block of metal, also known as a billet, is forced through a die with a specific cross-sectional profile. It’s a bit like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. 

Through extrusion, you create complex, strong cross-sections with an excellent surface finish.

Disadvantages of extrusion include a high initial cost setup, production limitations (only one type of cross-section can be made at a time), and part-by-part variation in size.

Metal casting

During the metal casting process, molten metal is poured into a mold cavity, where it’s cooled and later extracted.

Metal casting can produce complex shapes with features such as internal cavities and hollow sections. Parts are typically near-net shape, with minor post-processing necessary, if any. 

Compared to some manufacturing processes, casting is more expensive in medium-to-small quantities, due to high die cost. Another disadvantage to metal casting is that the surface finish is relatively coarse and not suitable for mating interfaces.

Advantages of 3D Metal Printing Prototyping

3D metal printing prototyping has many advantages over other types of manufacturing, including:

    • Faster production times: Parts created by traditional manufacturing processes like casting and forging can take weeks or months. With additive manufacturing prototyping, parts can be made in a matter of days -- allowing for efficient design modification and quicker time to market.
    • Cost-effectiveness: With less reliance on secondary processing, 3D metal printing prototyping saves time and money. 3D printers require less attention during production, so operators don’t need to be present throughout. Material costs are lower because 3D metal printers start from scratch rather than subtracting from a larger sheet or slab.
    • Consistent, quality parts: Additive manufacturing rapid prototyping produces reliable, high-quality parts. 
    • Complex designs: 3D metal printing allows for intricate designs, such as complex curves, shapes, or cavities, that traditional manufacturing processes can’t handle.

    • Tooling convenience: Tooling (jigs, fixtures, mold inserts, etc.) often has complex geometry. Tooling produced through CNC machining can lead to manufacturing congestion, due to a limited number of machines and operators. Producing tooling via 3D metal printing prototyping can eliminate these pain points by freeing up operators and reducing downtime.

Which Metal Part Prototyping Method Should You Choose?

Your idea may look good on paper, but how does it hold up to real-life challenges? 

Rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing allows you to test the component before sending it off to your customer, saving time and money. 

The prototype method you choose will depend a lot on the type of part being produced, what its application(s) will be, and the volume of parts needed.

In comparison to other prototyping methods, additive manufacturing prototyping is a cost-effective solution that provides high-quality prototypes that hold up to real-world challenges.

To learn more about whether additive manufacturing can support your product development, contact us.