Looking to 3D print your parts in stainless steel? We expound the possibilities: outsourcing, buying your own stainless steel 3D printer or using metal-filled PLA like SteelFill
There’s something profound about the fact that you can use a stainless steel 3D printer to create cold hard stainless steel prints. The sturdiness of stainless steel makes it useful for multiple industrial uses as well as for design and artistic applications. Besides, it’s one of the most affordable materials in metal 3D printing and has played a pivotal role in industry for the last 100 years.
Like aluminum and titanium, stainless steel can be used to 3D print complex designs that are normally impossible to accomplish. It can also produce large objects, owing to its strength. Thanks to 3D printing technology, stainless steel is soon to be put into even more uses. In fact, stainless steel holds the promise of machines that can replicate and create anything.
3D printed stainless steel is:
But that’s not all the good news. Just like traditional stainless steel, 3D printed stainless steel has many areas of application:
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, as well as one near-stainless-steel optio.
A common technique used by stainless steel 3D printers is binder jetting. It involves binding the layers of stainless steel powder with the assistance of a bonding agent. Stainless steel powder is deposited at the bottom of a build box, where a print head moves across the box and selectively sprays a binder solution. A heating lamp is then used to dry the layer of the model as outlined by the binding agent.
To create another layer, a new coating of powder is spread, and the process is repeated. The 3D model is built layer by layer until completion before it is dried in an oven to strengthen the binder.
Other methods exist, as well, namely selective laser sintering (SLS), and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective layer melting (SLM).
SLS and DMLS entail selectively sintering (heating and fusing) powdered stainless steel. This is achieved with a high-power laser, which fuses together the granules of the deposited stainless steel powder.
SLM is essentially the same thing as SLS or DMLS, apart from the fact that powder is fully melted instead of sintered. According to AZO materials, thin layers of stainless steel powder can be fused together with the help of a ytterbium laser.
All3DP’s 2018 Metal 3D printing guide highlights several ways to 3D print metal and lists some of the available metal 3D printers in the market.
Two of these printers, unveiled in 2017, are the Studio System and the Production System. Both printers are manufactured by Massachusetts-based 3D printing startup Desktop Metal, a company that has already received corporate approval from BMW, Lowe’s, GE, and Techtronic Industries, among others.
The Studio System, from Desktop Metal, makes use of bound metal deposition (BMD) extrusion and utilizes metal injection molding (MIM). On the other hand, the Production System employs single pass jetting, whereby layers of metal powder are fused with a binding agent.
Even though both printers promise to make metal additive manufacturing faster, they are very costly: The full package of the Studio System retails for slightly over $100,000, while a complete Production System is over $400,000.
Both printers are stainless steel 3D printers that can print stainless steels 17-4 PH and 316L (austenitic), among other types.
Limited printing precision is one of the reasons more companies haven’t integrated metal additive manufacturing into their workflow. That’s exactly what a subsidiary of Höganäs AB, named Digital Metal, attempts to tackle with their DM P2500 metal printer.
According to Digital Metal, the DM P2500 is the industry’s first high-precision binder jetting system. This high-precision machine can print exceptionally small and intricate metal parts and has a resolution of 35 µm, which eradicates the need for support structures. Digital Metal is currently collaborating with several stakeholders to publicize this printer.
The DMP2500 is a stainless steel 3D printer that can print both stainless steels 316L (1.4404) and 17-4PH (1.4542).
MarkForged has the Metal X, which according to the company, is ten times less expensive than other 3D printing systems. The Metal X offers an end-to-end solution and works like Desktop Metal’s Studio System: it prints metal powder that is bound by a plastic matrix.
The Mark X is a stainless steel 3D printer that can print both 17-4 PH and 316L.
3D printing stainless steel at home is demanding, at least by today’s standards. You need incredibly high temperatures, extra space, and a stainless steel 3D printer, which is super expensive. For most of us, this is just a dream.
But you don’t have to be demoralized by this reality because there are plastic filaments with added metal powders. ProtoPasta, ColorFabb, and TreeD Filaments are some of the most common sellers of composite metal-PLA filaments.
Their filaments have enough plastic to be printed at low temperatures, using almost any 3D printer. And with significant amounts of metal powder, they have enough metal to give your final object the metallic feel, look, and weight. Metal-filled PLAs are heavier and stand out from the usual filament choices in the market.
While the typical metal 3D printer filament contains 50% metal powder, Formfutura, a Dutch 3D printer filament company has manufactured filaments with a metal composition of approximately 80%. They are MetalFil Classic Copper and MetaFil Ancient Bronze, both of which have a print temperature of ±190 – 220° C.
If you’re considering metal-PLA filaments, you may need to upgrade your nozzle because these filaments will usually wear nozzles fast. Consider durable hotends that are made from metal and can withstand high temperatures, like E3D’s V6 Hotend.
Coming from ColorFabb, SteelFill is a metal-based PLA filament with a high steel content that you can use at home. It’s the newest addition in ColorFabb’s line and will work well with most settings that work for PLA filaments although you may need more heat.
Note: Owing to its high steel content, this material is abrasive when used with brass nozzles. Therefore, when printing with SteelFill, it’s recommended to use a stronger nozzle.
The extrusion temperature may vary depending on the printer, but anything between 200 and 220°C should give you the desired results. SteelFill resembles other ColorFabb metal-filled PLAs in regards to weight and feel after printing. In fact, it has similar characteristics to PLA.
If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, there are several 3D printing services that will deliver to your door. After all, as we’ve seen, owning a stainless steel 3D printer rather costly.
i.materialise, Sculpteo, and Shapeways are some of the biggest services offering 3D printing, and all three appear in All3DP’s 3D Printing Price Comparison Service. Based on your demands, you can pick from any of them if you want a solid, smooth 3D printed stainless steel part.
i.materialise makes high-grade stainless steel (316L), which combines great resolution with remarkable surface quality and high detail. Their stainless steel allows for thinner walls and better detail for the tinkerer who loves to fine-tune their designs.
Their high-detail stainless steel makes the perfect material for bolts, miniatures, dog tags, watch parts, board game pieces, jewelry, key chains, and an array of other items.
For pricing, i.materialise considers the amount of space your design takes, and they call it the “imaginary box around your model”. In addition, a startup cost is charged to your model’s price. This is a fixed cost independent of the quality or features of your model.
i.materialise believes that seeing and touching a real model makes a huge difference. Therefore, they have designed sample kits based on their Periodic Table of Materials. They also offer Materialise OnSite, another online platform catering to professionals.
Sculpteo uses fine metallic powder containing (2-3%) molybdenum, (11-14%) nickel, (66-70%) iron, and (16-18) chrome to 3D print 316L stainless steel models. In addition to having fine coating resolution (30-40 µm), their material is highly corrosion resistant and stands out for its high ductility.
This qualifies it for usage in several industries like the aerospace industry (manufacturing of mechanical parts), medical industry (orthopedics, surgical assistance, endoscopic surgery), and automobile industry (for making corrosion-resistant parts). It can also be used to make jewelry and watches.
Sculpteo maintains that a customer should always expect a modification of their initial design to ensure successful production. Their 316L is easy to maintain because it attracts less dirt, and having chrome as one of its components gives it the benefit of not rusting.
If you choose to go with Sculpteo, they have some guidelines for customers:
Shapeways is a European 3D printing service that partners with ExOne to 3D print steel. Their process involves sintering powdered 420 Stainless Steel together with glue in whatever shape your design takes.
Your final product will contain 40% bronze and about 60% stainless steel and can have a nickel, gold, or matte look. ExOne, which was once at the center of the American steel industry, does the polishing and it is upon the customer to decide the options.
Shapeways stands out because it provides clear tutorials, software, and a massive gallery of designs that you can use for inspiration. Also, you can answer almost all of your stainless steel queries answered on their stainless steel page. They admit their 3D printed steel products are not food safe. They also acknowledge that their printing process cannot create objects with interlocking parts.
Things look positive for metal 3D printing. In late 2017, researchers from several institutions, including Oregon State University, Ames National Laboratory, Lawrence Livemore National Laboratory, and Georgia Tech University made a breakthrough in 3D printing 316L. They managed to print a low-carbon 316L sturdy enough for use in military and marine applications.
The issue has been that printed stainless steel is porous and therefore prone to fracture. But now, as Science Magazine notes, researchers have developed a computer-controlled procedure that controls the structure of stainless steel from the nanoscale to micron scale.
The process also creates dense stainless steel layers. In the end, this enables the stainless steel 3D printer to build tiny cell-wall-like structures that prevent fracturing. Tests showed that the final product was three times stronger than steel produced using other techniques. A paper detailing the work is published in the journal Nature Materials.
License: The text of "Stainless Steel 3D Printer – How to 3D Print Stainless Steel" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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