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Cop That Copper

3D Printing Copper: How to Get Copper 3D Prints

Picture of Benjamin Goldschmidt
by Benjamin Goldschmidt
Oct 19, 2019
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Copper is a ubiquitous metal desired for its conductive properties. But did you know you can 3D print it? Explore this guide to copper 3D printing to find out more.

Copper 3D Printing What Is It?

Even coins can be 3D printed (but they're not legal tender).
Even coins can be 3D printed (but they're not legal tender). (Source: i.materialise.com)

3D printing copper, or metals of any kind, is the holy grail of home 3D printing. Despite the fact that it’s a highly attractive prospect, metal printing, in general, is still fairly difficult in the home setting. Nevertheless, over the past few years, significant strides have been made in professional metal printing. Now it’s commonplace to 3D print metal parts in several industries, such as automotive manufacturing.

This includes 3D printing copper, a metal desired for its conductivity and aesthetic properties. In fact, while the legality may be up in the air, it’s even possible to 3D print coins using metal 3D printing techniques.

Hold on – you’re just here to get your single part printed in copper? In that case, head on over to Craftcloud, the 3D printing and price comparison service from All3DP. You’ll instantly find the best price and provider for your needs.

In the meantime, let’s discuss some of the methods you can use to get started printing copper.

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Copper 3D Printing Method 1: FDM Printing

This Filamet copper engine block was printed on a standard FDM printer.
This Filamet copper engine block was printed on a standard FDM printer. (Source: hackaday.com)

In terms of fused deposition model (FDM) printing, your only real option is to use a copper-infused filament. Many exist, but one company pushing the limits of copper density is The Virtual Foundry, which is reaching up to 90% metal in its hybrid PLA filaments. The idea behind the filament is that once the object has been printed, it can be fired in a sintering kiln to melt into a 100% copper object.

Of course, one of the big drawbacks of this technique is that the loss of the PLA binder results in a 15-20% shrinkage of the part. Nevertheless, most parts can be adjusted before printing to account for this shrinkage as long as the features aren’t too small or delicate. So far, lots of fun objects have been printed with this such as a copper coliseum or even a large impeller.

The neat thing about Filamet copper filament is that it can even be weathered green like the Statue of Liberty. That’s because, once the material is fired in a kiln, it becomes 100% copper and retains all the properties of copper, like high electrical conductivity.

Cost

Of course, such a filament doesn’t come cheap. One kilogram costs $121, and due to the much higher density of copper, you get much less filament than you’d expect than if it were 100% PLA.

Accessibility-wise, this filament can be ordered just as easily as any other type of PLA. However, unlike typical PLA, Filamet needs to be pre-heated and hung on a low-friction spool holder in order to prevent the filament from snapping during printing. In addition, The Virtual Foundry recommends printing slowly at first (less than 30 mm/s), among other considerations.

In terms of performance, the filament is capable of printing layers as thin as 100 microns. Smaller layer heights and features may be difficult to print after post-processing the object in a kiln.

Price: $121 per kilogram

Accessibility: Excellent, similar to plain PLA

Performance: Can print down to a layer thickness of 100 micrometers and has the same electrical conductivity as pure copper.

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Copper 3D Printing Method 2: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

Image of: Method 2: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
Parts produced using DMLS. (Source: proto3000.com)

DMLS is a process involving a laser that fuses powdered metal into a fully-functional 3D part. Powder is deposited and the part is built layer by layer. After the part is complete, the excess powder must be removed using compressed air in an enclosed chamber.

This process is quite messy and requires tools similar to what would be used for a sandblasting system. Health considerations must be taken into account as well since it’s generally hazardous to breathe in fine metal particles.

Purchasing your own DMLS machine is out of the question for most individuals since these machines are generally over $100,000. Nevertheless, various 3D printing companies can print parts using DMLS for you on demand. Despite this low accessibility, DMLS has many applications, depending upon the metal type used. For example, NASA is investigating DMLS for the production of printable rocket parts.

Price: Depends on the complexity of the part and the amount of metal used, but in general over $1,000 per kilogram.

Accessibility: Accessibility for DMLS technology is essentially zero for an individual who wants to purchase their own machine, but it’s possible to have a 3D printing service print your part for you.

Performance: Layer thickness is about 38 microns and the finished metal part has the same properties (conductivity, density, etc.) as a cast metal part would.

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Copper 3D Printing Method 3: Lost-Wax Casting / Lost-PLA Casting

Image of: Method 3: Lost-Wax Casting / Lost-PLA Casting
Casting a metal part. (Source: 3D Systems)

Wax Casting

Lost-wax casting is a process by which an initial object created in wax can be turned into a mold to create a part in another material (usually metal). The steps to achieve this are the following:

  1. Create an object in wax.
  2. Pour plaster around the part to create a plaster mold around the wax object.
  3. Put the plaster mold in a kiln to burn out the wax from the inside of the mold. This will leave a mold with an empty void where the wax object used to be.
  4. Pour molten metal into the plaster mold to create your casted object.
  5. In order to create your part, you’ll have areas where you poured metal into the part that must be filed, sanded, or cut away to leave your finished part.

It should be noted that this process of lost-wax casting tends to cause small details to be lost and causes the finished part to be smaller than the original wax casted piece. Therefore, exact dimensions should not be expected as compared to the original part without careful consideration for the shrinkage of the materials.

PLA Casting

Along the same lines of lost-wax casting is a faster 3D printing-related process known as lost-PLA casting. Lost-PLA casting can be done with a few easy steps.

  1. 3D print an object in PLA.
    • During the design process, access channels can be designed into the part to make it simple to pour copper into the mold once it is created. This may be easier than trying to attach separate materials to PLA and will be simpler to burn out.
  2. Pour plaster around the part to create a plaster mold around the 3D printed object.
  3. Put the plaster mold in a kiln to burn out the PLA from the inside of the mold. This will leave a mold with an empty void where the PLA used to be.
  4. Pour molten metal into the voided plaster mold to create the cast object.
  5. File, sand, and cut away access channels to leave your finished part.

Lost-PLA casting has been used to make everything from coins to metal challenges for copper. Of course, nearly any object can be cast with the limit mainly being your imagination.

In terms of cost, printing the object will cost at most a few dollars (depending on how large your print is). The price of melting out the PLA depends on if you use an existing kiln or decide to build your own. Kilns can be quite pricey from $500 to several thousands of dollars, depending on the size and heating characteristics you desire. Plaster and sand can be purchased for under $50, depending on the quantity needed.

Price: Over $600 (as an initial investment)

Accessibility: This requires a kiln and experience with casting.

Performance: Technically, the PLA could be printed with a 20-micrometer resolution if desired, but casting features so fine may be difficult.

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Copper 3D Printing Alternative Method: 3D Printing Service

Image of: Alternative Method: 3D Printing Service
3D printed copper hippo. (Source: pliustrys.com)

If you’d like to print in metal, but you aren’t ready to buy a kiln or pay over $100 for a kilogram of metal filament, you can get a 3D printing service to print designs in metal for you. Here are some things to keep in mind before selecting one:

  • Does your object have very small features?
  • How much are you willing to pay?
  • How fast do you want your part made?

In general, parts with very small features (less than 100 microns) cannot be reliably created using lost- wax or lost-PLA casting due to the limitations of the method. DMLS, on the other hand, can produce very small features. The drawback of course is that DMLS tends to cost more.

Through Craftcloud, the 3D printing and price comparison service from All3DP, you can easily find the best price and provider for your needs. Using your designs and location, we offer real-time prices from major global and local providers, including Sculpteo and i.Materialise. In addition to taking the work off your hands, you can benefit from professional quality, a wide range of materials, and round-the-clock support.

(Lead image source: 3D Hubs)

License: The text of "3D Printing Copper: How to Get Copper 3D Prints" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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