3D printing is becoming increasingly popular and uses a process called additive manufacturing, which “uses data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to direct hardware to deposit material, layer upon layer, in precise geometric shapes,” (GE.com). This is in contrast with traditional sheet metal fabrication, which uses machining, laser cutting, punching, and other processes to remove excess material rather than add more. While 3D printing may seem like a more efficient solution, there are several drawbacks that severely limit its capabilities, and traditional metal fabrication still has the upper hand in sheet metal prototyping.
Limitations of 3D Printing Prototypes
3D printers have a limited area in which they can print, so a prototype can only be so big. In traditional sheet metal fabrication, the prototype can be whatever size is needed. There is much more flexibility to assemble pieces and parts rather than be limited by the size of a printer.
While 3D printers can be very efficient, they are not as accurate and precise as traditional sheet metal fabrication processes. The tolerance of CNC machining can be as small as 0.025 mm – 0.125 mm while the minimum possible tolerance of a 3D printer is 0.1 mm – 0.5 mm. This is because the 3D-printed material has to have a minimum layer thickness. Because the tolerance is larger for a 3D printer, it can be less precise when completing specifications on a project. It is much easier to take off than it is to add on in a sheet metal fabrication project, giving traditional sheet metal fabrication the upper hand.
Most 3D printers build from an array of thermoplastics, which perform differently that metal. 3D metal printers do exist, using a high-powered laser to bind together fine metallic powder that the printer distributes onto the print bed. The selection of metals available for printing are not as wide as that of traditional fabrication, and some metals cannot be used on a printer at all because of their high melting points.
In terms of functionality, because printed parts are fused together layer by layer, their structural integrity can be much poorer than traditionally manufactured parts. “Metal printed parts have higher strength and hardness and are often more flexible than parts that are manufactured using a traditional method. However, they are more prone to fatigue,” (Hubs.com). They do not hold up to wear and tear as well and are less durable in the long run.
There is evidence that suggests 3D printing processes may be a toxic hazard. When 3D printers heat the base materials they are using in order to print with them, they release volatile chemical compounds into the air near the printer. “The chemical by-products and particles that are released into the environment during the printing process can build up the longer the process takes and some are small enough that they can infiltrate the lungs, causing damage,” (Forbes). This research is in its beginning stages and could reveal that 3D printing requires more safety precautions than of which the world is currently aware.
Using traditional sheet metal fabrication processes for your prototype ensures that your prototype is true production quality. The purpose of a prototype is to get a real-world glimpse of how your end product is going to work and function, so you want it to be made out of the same material and use the same processes that you will use when it comes to full-scale production. When your prototype doesn’t match the end product, you’re not really testing the end product nor are you able to properly gauge how it will actually perform. It is important to produce your prototype in the same way as the end product so you can truly test how the end product will perform. If the final production run will not be 3D printed, it most likely won’t make sense to 3D print a prototype that will be different than the end product.
Once you complete the prototype process, it’s now time to take your prototype to large scale production. Depending on the complexity of the design, a 3D printer can sometimes produce a sheet metal prototype faster than traditional sheet metal fabrication processes. However, when it comes to production of multiple units of the final product, it certainly can’t compete with traditional sheet metal fabrication processes, which can turn out hundreds of units an hour. Purchasing enough printers to meet demand on a full production scale would be incredibly expensive and not feasible for most metal fabricators.
Have an idea you want to prototype?
Estes Accelerator can help and move you to the front of the line to make sure your prototype meets its deadline. No matter where you are in the process and no matter how much experience you have with sheet metal, working with a dedicated prototyping shop is valuable. Estes Accelerator can provide you with a prototype, giving you a tangible object to hold in your hands, inspect, and test in the real world. We can also provide you with an opportunity to see exactly how a part comes together during assembly and catch errors or omissions before final production.
In addition to this, Estes Accelerator is strategically designed to give customers quick turnaround on all of their projects and improve their speed to market. Utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and the latest programming software, our team is equipped with all the necessary tools to bring your project to life. Contact the Estes Accelerator team today to get started!