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3D Metal Printing Technology and Processes: An In-Depth Look

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Here

For the last 300 years, mankind has become very good at manufacturing parts at scale. The first three industrial revolutions introduced leverage to boost productivity by orders of magnitude. The first industrial revolution introduced steam power, the second delivered the concept of a lean assembly line, and the third revolution brought computational power and automation. We are now in the fourth industrial revolution where digital manufacturing is again unlocking the power of leverage, enabling even more manufacturing capacity. But there is a problem: producing low volumes of parts, especially with a high variability, still remains a challenging endeavor. The limiting factor is once again a single human who is needed to set up, fixture, program, and run specialty parts. All of the industrial advancements up to this point have been unable to provide the same leverage in these one-off scenarios.

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Diagram of the first three industrial revolutions
Figure 1. The first three industrial revolutions

A Solution to the Single Part Problem

Enter functional 3D printing from Markforged. For the first time, there is an alternative to traditional manufacturing methods which yields parts with properties suitable for end use. The introduction of the ADAM metal 3D printing process has unlocked the problem that has plagued manufacturers for centuries: how do I efficiently produce single parts? The production of low-volume, high-mix parts is perfectly suited for a 3D metal printing technology because all of the barriers that previously plagued conventional manufacturing (set up, fixturing, programming, etc.) are largely eliminated. Now a complex manufacturing schedule can be managed remotely via a cloud-based software solution, controlling a fleet of printers spanning multiple geographies. We are entering the era of distributed manufacturing with 3D printing in much the same way that discretized computing revolutionized the world over 20 years ago.

Metal 3D printing is not new and certainly was not invented by Markforged – so why now? The ADAM metal 3D printing process represents a breakthrough technology advancement that lowers the barrier of entry by a factor of 10 compared to other metal printing technologies. This means that the equipment cost is less, the facility requirements are less, and — more importantly — the parts produced with this technology are drastically cheaper as well. With materials like 17-4 PH Stainless Steel, A2 Tool Steel, H13 Tool Steel, and soon Inconel 625 and Titanium 6Al-4V, it’s easy to see why this technology is turning heads in the industry. Manufacturing companies are now looking toward metal additive technologies to supplement tooling, fixturing, functional prototyping, and low-volume part production. It has never been easier to produce one-off metal parts.

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Robert Ginberg inspecting a 3D printed part at his desk
Figure 2. Markforged customer Robert Ginsberg from RPG Industries, Inc inspecting a finished part that was printed on the Metal X system.

How the ADAM Process Works

The ADAM metal printing process is built upon a foundation of 50 years of metal injection molding (MiM) practices. Instead of using a mold (which itself requires significant time and effort to produce), the ADAM process instead uses a 3D printer to achieve the initial green-state geometry. This is accomplished by an FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) or extrusion-style printing method using a specialty filament composed of metal particles and two binding agents. Once the part is printed, it is placed into a solvent wash where a portion of the binding agent is removed passively. This washing step is a batch process, so multiple parts can be processed at once. When the part is fully washed, as indicated by a target mass reduction, it is placed into a furnace. This furnace will run through an automation cycle and ramps the temperature up to first burn out the remaining binding agent and then fully sinter the metal particles together. It’s worth noting that the furnace is also a batch process, so multiple parts (of the same metallurgy) can be run at once. The end result is a ready to use metal part which can be further post-processed if required.

The Metal X 3D printer
Figure 3. The Markforged Metal X printer.

Not all parts, however, are great candidates for the ADAM 3D metal printing process. At the end of the day this is a tool, and some tools are better suited for certain tasks (think lathe versus a mill). There are size and geometry restrictions with the technology which must be adhered to in order to produce successful parts. The best-suited parts are designed with the process in mind – this practice is most commonly referred to as DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing). A great example of this is the Stanley Black & Decker actuator housing featured below. When users work within the guidelines, the ADAM process excels at producing metal parts for tooling applications to support additive manufacturing sites, low-volume, high-mix parts, as well as functional prototypes.

Original actuator housing held next to 3D printed housing version
Figure 4. Original actuator housing from Stanley Black & Decker (left) compared to the 3D printed housing designed for the ADAM process (right).

The 4th Revolution and the Future of Manufacturing

The fourth industrial revolution of digital manufacturing is already changing the manufacturing landscape. The introduction of discretized metal 3D printing is enabling companies to solve the age-old problem of economical high-mix, low-volume part production. The ADAM metal 3D printing process from Markforged is the lowest cost and easiest to use metal printing technology on the market to address this need. The comprehensive offering from Markforged — including world-class software and a full range of engineering grade material capabilities spanning plastics, composites, and metals — means customers are able to solve a wide range of problems which have traditionally plagued them.

If you're interested in learning more about the ADAM metal 3D printing process and the Metal X printer from Markforged, request a product demo on our website.

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