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Accessible Aluminum

Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

Picture of Brian Obudho
by Brian Obudho
Nov 3, 2019
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How do you 3D print aluminum? For most of us, an aluminum 3D printer is too expensive, but there are other options for 3D printing aluminum. Let's dive in!

Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

Introduction

A truncated octahedron lattice 3D printed in aluminum
A truncated octahedron lattice 3D printed in aluminum Source: Reddit

3D printing has turned into the Holy Grail of additive manufacturing. It’s poised to kickstart a new renaissance in metal crafting and to change manufacturing forever. In fact, companies like Siemens and HP are already placing their bets on the future of this technology.

Aluminum (AlSi10Mg) is a light-weight alloy with good strength, high flexibility, and outstanding thermal properties. Based on its remarkable mechanical properties, it serves multiple industries, including biomedical, automotive, and aerospace. It can be easily molded and used for functional parts that require stiffness, low weight, high strength, and high accuracy. It’s also corrosion resistant and is ideal for outdoor applications.

Currently, aluminum is printed using a powder-based technology called selective laser sintering (SLS). Other names include selective laser melting (SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).

Just recently, researchers from HRL Laboratories developed a new method, called nanofunctionalization, for 3D printing high-strength aluminum alloys, including Al6061 and Al7075. The process involves feeding a printer nanofunctionalized powder, which is then heated until it forms an object. Futurism reports that the printed structures maintain their alloy strength and do not crack, owing to the nanoparticles acting as nucleation sites. The research is published in the September 2017 issue of Nature and is a testimony that aluminum 3D printing is making significant progress.

Despite advances in metal 3D printing, most of us will still have to rely on 3D printing services, as “desktop” or “benchtop” options remain within budget ranges more typical for small to medium businesses. Nevertheless, following a brief overview of metal 3D printing technology, we take a look at both options.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

SLS (SLM, DMLS)

A functional scheme of the SLS process
A functional scheme of the SLS process Source: ResearchGate.net

Selective laser sintering makes use of powdered metals to build models. The technology uses an energy source (like a laser) to fuse “atomized” powder and create the layers of a model.

The process works in the following way:

  1. A thin covering of metal powder is laid on the build platform of the aluminum 3D printer.
  2. A laser selectively binds parts of the powder to build a solid layer of the model.
  3. The build platform lowers, and the printer uses its re-coater to distribute another covering of metallic powder on top of the previous layer’s fused and unfused powder.
  4. At this point, the process repeats itself, layer by layer, until a complete model forms. It is crucial to note that the melted powder is cooled quickly to form the metal.

A major benefit of SLS is that it can easily print structurally complex models, and (typically) without the need for support structures. This is because the unfused powder itself acts as support.

Depending on the needs of the sculptor, the final object can undergo heat treatment and be sandblasted to give it a smooth finish. Usually, 3D printed aluminum parts tend to have a textured, matte gray finish that differentiates them from traditional shiny milled aluminum parts.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printing Services

The three most common 3D printing services
The three most common 3D printing services Source: SketchUp.com

Several companies offer metal 3D printing services, but the most popular ones are i.materialise, Sculpteo, and Shapeways, all three of which, among others, appear in Craftcloud, the 3D printing and price comparison service from All3DP.

For a deeper insight into additional companies, check out All3DP’s article about the Best Online 3D Printing Services. While you’re at it, you may also want to have a look at the Metal 3D Printer Guide.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printing Service: i.materialise

The i.materialise Help Center
The i.materialise Help Center Source:

i.materialise forms aluminum parts using DMLS technology, where a high-powered laser selectively binds metal particles layer by layer.

When considering i.materialise, your design should follow these guidelines:

  • For smaller surfaces, the minimum wall thickness should be 0.5 mm. Stick to 1 mm for larger surfaces.
  • i.materialise welcomes small details, but if you have engraving or embossed text, you need a minimum depth of 0.15 mm, a minimum height of 0.4 mm, and a minimum line thickness of 0.4 mm.
  • i.materialise encourages customers to rethink the geometries of their designs and to consider organic or freeform shapes rather than right angles, angular shapes, or straight lines. Steep angles that exceed 35° are okay because they will likely have smoother and better surfaces. However, angles that are less than 35° will likely have poor surface quality.
  • If you’re considering holes in your model, i.materialise recommends a minimum diameter of 1 mm, unless you want the aluminum powder to get stuck inside your object.
  • i.materialise cannot print hinged and interlinking parts nor nested objects (objects floating within other objects). The company maintains that such objects are beyond the scope of their DMLS technology

If you’re certain your model is within the guidelines, and you’d like to print it, upload your file here.

Alternatively, you can access i.materialise through All3DP’s 3D Printing Price Comparison Service, where it’s possible to compare prices (with Sculpteo and Shapeways) in real time.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printing Service: Sculpteo

Sculpteo's Online 3D Printing Service
Sculpteo's Online 3D Printing Service Source: Pinterest

Sculpteo uses a fine metal powder composed of magnesium (0.6%), silicon (7%), and aluminum (90%) to 3D print aluminum models. Sculpteo’s SLM-produced aluminum parts rival those produced using traditional methods. Their final product has a rough surface, though customers are free to request special finishes.

Sculpteo is currently working on a new suite of custom tools that should address the challenges of 3D printing. The French company wants to establish an online system that will allow customers to evaluate and manufacture their metal-based projects. Scultpeo is calling this series of combined tools Agile Metal Technology and promises that it will combine AI (artificial intelligence) and interactive 3D features to provide customers with better answers in the shortest time. The technology will mainly be concerned with addressing the feasibility of your project, its design, and its pricing. In the end, the customer will save time and achieve greater success.

Sculpteo advises that you consider the following when you choose their service:

  • After you’ve created your 3D file, upload it in a native CAD file instead of an STL or OBJ file. This way, they can send the file to their SLM280 HL.
  • Before shipping, your object undergoes cleaning and sandblasting to remove any traces of the support.
  • In calculating the price, Sculpteo considers the expense of aluminum powder and the cooling time of materials. They acknowledge that their aluminum 3D printer does not work throughout.
  • Sculpteo cannot accept files containing clusters of multiple objects, but to reduce the printing cost, Sculpteo sets up a different price calculation when a customer orders two or more objects. The company has resources for customers who want to reduce their 3D printing price.
  • Sculpteo determines the most appropriate finishing strategy for a customer’s specifications using a range of machining operations like drilling, threading, grinding, polishing, heat treatment, milling, and turning.

Sculpteo believes their intelligent Agile Metal Technology, the skills of their engineers, and the efficiency of their 3D tools enables them to offer the best price for aluminum additive manufacturing.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printing Service: Shapeways

Shapeways Online 3D Printing Service
Shapeways Online 3D Printing Service Source: TechCrunch.com

It will take 15 business days for Shapeways to 3D print your aluminum model, but the time needed to receive your item depends on your location. Shapeways uses SLM where a high energy source heats aluminum powder beyond the melting point. Instead of just sintering it, this heat melts the powder and creates a solid, homogenous aluminum alloy.

Support structures are generated automatically and remove post-processing. Shapeways’ production planners try their best to minimize support structures and admit that complex shapes may have several supports and may leave an imperfect surface.

Shapeways can also be accessed using All3DP’s 3D Printing Price Comparison Service, where it’s possible to compare prices (with i.materialise and Sculpteo) in real time.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printers

Image of: 3D Printers
Source: Sculpteo

Outside of services, you can take things up a notch and purchase your own aluminum 3D printer. One company, for example, making great progress in metal 3D printing is Desktop Metal, a 3D printing startup based in Massachusetts.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printer: Desktop Metal

The Desktop Metal Studio System
The Desktop Metal Studio System Source: Javelin-Tech.com

Desktop Metal have launched both the Studio System and the Production System. Both 3D printers are meant to cover every step in the metal printing process and allow users to print custom 3D objects. According to Digital Trends, these printers have a “microwave enhanced sintering” process that makes 3D metal printing as simple as printing in plastic.

Desktop-sized DM Studio leverages the bound metal deposition (BMD) extrusion method, and like FDM 3D printers, it makes use of MIM metal powders. On the other hand, Production System is an industrial-sized printer that uses single pass jetting. That is, it deposits metal powder and fuses the powder using a binding agent. Both machines are aluminum 3D printers that can produce 2024 and 6061 aluminum. Both rely on a furnace.

However, as fascinating as these machines seem, they’re tailored more for industries than for homemakers. An base Studio System model, for example, costs upwards of $49,000 and the price doubles if you want everything including the furnace. Its big brother, the Production System, costs more than $420,000.

This is your only hope of owning an aluminum 3D printer that is capable of producing parts quickly. It’s important to note that, while the two machines are super expensive, their cost is just a portion of the traditional metal 3D printing system.

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Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum

3D Printer: MarkForged

The New Mark X
The New Mark X Source: Fabbaloo.com

MarkForged offers the Metal X, which provides end-to-end manufacturing. Their selling point is that their 3D metal printers are less expensive compared to other printers in the market. The Metal X uses the same principle as the Studio System and is an aluminum 3D printer that can print 6061 and 7075 aluminum.

License: The text of "Aluminum 3D Printer: How to 3D Print Aluminum" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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