In theory, the ability to 3D print silver sounds wonderful. After all, the precious metal is often used to make jewelry, which could always benefit from complex shapes and designs. Despite that, metals (like silver) are much harder to print than thermoplastics like PLA.
Nevertheless, there are several processes through which 3D printing silver can be done successfully, both at home or through a professional printing service.
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Currently, there are no methods of directly 3D printing silver using an FDM 3D printer. Despite companies like The Virtual Foundry offering several metal-infused filaments to print from, silver currently isn’t one of them. Of course, there are indirect methods of using FDM printing to create silver objects, such as lost-wax and lost-PLA casting, which we’ll discuss in a later section.
But in terms of directly printing, it is possible to 3D print with metal clays that come in silver. These need to be sintered in a furnace after printing to remove the substrate and leave a solid silver part. The Mini Metal Maker is an example of a machine that claims to be able to print in these metal clays. Unfortunately, there’s no way to buy this machine, but its maker did write a book on how to make one yourself.
Price: There’s a book on Amazon to make your own Mini Metal Maker. The cost of the book along with creating your own printer may run you a few hundred dollars, depending on the parts used and the amount of metal clay you choose to print with.
Accessibility: This method requires experience with using a kiln and building a 3D printer.
Performance: Although we haven’t directly tested this method, videos suggest that the Mini Metal Maker is capable of printing similarly to other syringe-based 3D printing systems.
Direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS, is a 3D printing process that uses lasers to fuse metal powder together layer by layer to make a fully metal part. The process follows these steps:
Despite the advantage of being able to directly 3D print a metal end-use part, DMLS machines are extremely expensive, starting at around $100,000 for a base model. In addition, the fine powder used in these machines is dangerous to breathe in, so safety considerations like gloves, eyewear, and an appropriate method of recapturing the metal dust are required. Nevertheless, there are print-on-demand options where you can send your part to be 3D printed with DMLS technology for a fee, as we’ll see in a later section.
Many custom jewelry companies use DMLS technology to create silver rings and other jewelry. Human Interface Jewellery, a company based in New Zealand, creates unique jewelry, such as a ring with movable parts, integrated into the design.
Price: Over $1000 per kg, fluctuating depending on the price of the metal powder at the time. It should be noted that a large amount of this cost comes from post-processing.
Accessibility: DMLS is not a very accessible method for 3D printing in silver owing to the fact that the DMLS machines themselves are so expensive that they are typically not owned by individuals. Even big companies often contract out their silver DMLS manufacturing rather than invest in an in-house system.
Performance: Unlike lost-PLA casting, DMLS can achieve a Z-resolution of 38 microns or less and is thus good for intricate parts.
Lost-wax casting is the process of creating a wax mold of an object to cast a metal version of the object. This process has been used for a long time, with significant leaps having been made in recent history. For example, it’s now possible to transition from wax casting to lost-PLA casting, which has given rise to much more complex castable parts.
Lost-PLA casting is nearly the same process as lost-wax casting except that PLA is used in place of wax. Since nearly every FDM 3D printer can print in PLA, extremely intricate objects can be 3D printed and cast. The method involves the following steps:
It should be noted that this technique can lead to shrinkage of the part and the loss of small features, so compensation for that during the design of the object may be needed if you need dimensionally-accurate parts. Since we’re talking about silver, one usually has jewelry in mind, so pay attention to ring sizes and fit.
Price: Much of the cost is upfront, with kilns costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In terms of the molding and printing process, the main recurrent costs come from the cost of the raw metal and the cost of the plaster and the PLA parts. The plaster and the PLA will cost very little (under $20) unless you’re trying to make something big.
Accessibility: This requires the use of a kiln and experience with casting to get the best results.
Performance: In terms of resolution, objects can be printed with features as small as 20 microns, but casting may lose small features and it may not be useful to print anything with features smaller than 100 microns.
Not everyone wants to learn how to cast metal in order to 3D print a metal object. If you fall into this category, you may want to consider using an external company to get your model printed in silver. You’ve got several options:
Although 3D printing silver using DMLS is possible, very few companies offer this technique outside of custom orders. However, you might be interested in the list of DMLS printers capable of printing in silver.
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Interested in the kinds of things 3D printing silver has to offer? Check out these articles:
(Lead image source: Shapeways)
License: The text of "3D Printing Silver: How to Get Silver 3D Prints" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.