Aug 1, 2018

Titanium 3D Printing – How to Get Titanium Parts 3D Printed

Need titanium for that project you are secretly developing in your garage, the one that'll disrupt the aerospace industry? Or perhaps you need a titanium replacement hip or knee and want to take matters into your own hands? In any case, you'll need to know who the Titans of titanium 3D printing are!

The Wonder Metal

Titanium is everywhere where a good amount of force is needed, whether in the 1965 debut of Marvel’s Titanium Man or in NASA’s reinvention of the wheel to make super-elastic tires. There are in fact very good reasons for this association, titanium is best known for being one of the hardest metals on Earth, and by far the best when considering strength-to-weight ratio.

But the might of titanium doesn’t end there. Unlike most metals, titanium doesn’t corrode easily and has a melting temperature well above those of most common metals (What do you think of that Iron Man?). So it’s no wonder that titanium typically finds its place in sophisticated applications where lightweight material resilience is required.

As if that’s not enough, titanium is the champion of biomedical implants. Despite the recent advances in synthetic polymers, it continues to be a top choice for your prosthetic needs.

The question is, how have the leaps that additive manufacturing of metals has taken in recent years changed the landscape surrounding titanium 3D printing? Which technologies are now being employed? Where can you get your parts 3D printed in titanium? Keep reading if you want to know!

Where Did I Put My Titanium-PLA Filament?

Titanium is a metal, so it’s only logical to expect that recent advances in the additive manufacturing of metal parts would also spill over to titanium 3D printing. Given the high temperatures needed to melt metal, the printing of metal parts has typically been as an industry endeavour rather than a domestic or office affair. However, users of conventional FDM printers have enjoyed access to some form of metal printing.

We speak of course of polymer filament infused with metal. These filaments are usually made with PLA mixed with metal powder in amounts varying anywhere between 50% and 85%. Manufacturers provide several flavors to choose from, including steel, copper, bronze and brass. Unfortunately, titanium-PLA filament is usually not on offer.

The exact reasons for this are not clear, but the fact that the price of Titanium is more than 10 times the price of more common metals and alloys may have something to do with it.

Industrial Standards, Part 1

Titanium is better known for its mechanical properties rather than for its aesthetic ones. Therefore, it’s no wonder that industrial settings are where it shines. In such contexts, titanium 3D printing is often done through a process called powder bed fusion.

The technique beings by uniformly spreading titanium powder on a platform and selectively targeting it with a highly focused power source, like a laser. As the intense energy point travels across the bed, it melts and fuses the particles into a single cross section of the object. The step is then repeated so that more titanium powder is spread atop the fused layer, followed by the power source fusing new particles together and to the layer beneath.

In this way, a ready-to-use titanium object is created. Whenever lasers are used for melting particles together, the process is often called direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). Companies like EOS, 3D Systems and Stratasys are some of the leading manufacturers of this technology.

Industrial Standards, Part 2

More recently, a technique called electron beam melting (EBM) has been gaining ground. One of its pioneers and main developers is Arcam, which is part of GE Additive. You can tell by the name that the principal difference between DMLS and EBM is the power source: lasers vs electron beams, i.e. photons vs electrons. Otherwise, it’s still capable of titanium 3D printing.

Typically, the energy output through the EBM process is higher then that of DMLS. EBM offers several advantages:

  • Fewer internal defects, resulting in
  • Good material properties, notably better fatigue properties and minimal residual stresses due to high process temperature, and
  • Little waste material, with virtually all excess powder being recyclable.

Meanwhile, the main advantage of DMLS lies in its finer layer thickness (typically 20–40 μm, compared to 50–70 μm for EBM). This results in a smoother finish, which can be of relevance for both aesthetics and function.

EBM has recently been in the news for breaking the record of the largest ever titanium 3D printed part. A little over 1200 cm across, the object in question was a dome for capping a fuel tank and set the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to take the prize.

The New Kids on the Titanium Block

A different approach to titanium 3D printing was taken by Norsk Titanium, which is the forerunner of a process they call rapid plasma deposition (RPD).

In RPD, a titanium wire is melted and built up in layers of 3–4 mm in height and 8–12 mm in width inside a chamber with an atmosphere of inert argon gas. Despite the increased roughness compared to DMLS or EBM, the company advertises its process to be 50–100 times faster than powder-based systems. It says that the production process is monitored 600 times per second and speaks of the high standards of machine-to-machine consistency.

Another strong point of RPD is that, in its 4th generation MERKE printer, parts can be built up to a volume of 900 x 600 x 300 mm³. This compares favorably to the 300 x 300 x 300 mm³ of similar printers in the same category.

Desktop Titanium

Last year, the company Desktop Metal stole the show in the metal 3D printing arena with their DM Studio System. It offers the possibility of printing metal in an office-friendly environment for a fraction of the cost of a standard metal 3D printer.

The technology employed by Desktop Metal extrudes bound metal rods to form an object in a FDM-like process. Although currently they do not have titanium available as a printing material, Desktop Metal does indicate that is developing materials made with titanium alloys. So stay tuned for further developments on this front!

3D Print Titanium From Home

If you’re reading this article at home, the office or a workshop, you may be wondering where you can get a titanium part for your next project. Well, we have good news for you!

The company i.materialise offers a titanium 3D printing service using TiAl6V4 (an alloy made of titanium, aluminium and vanadium) using DMLS technology. The company promises an accuracy down to 0.2 mm, a layer thickness of 0.03–0.6 mm, and a minimum wall thickness of 0.5 mm. In addition, you can choose a satin or matte finish for your part. The maximum size for your prints will have to be 220 x 220 x 250 mm³.

Sculpteo also offers a TiAl6V4 printing service using DMLS technology. They offer an accuracy of 0.05 mm, a minimal wall thickness of 2 mm, a minimal layer thickness of 0.03 mm, and a single finish called “raw”. With Sculpteo you can print slightly larger prints, up to 325 x 250 x 250 mm³.

Other noteworthy alternatives include 3D Hubs and 3Diligent, both of which essentially work as platforms that bring local manufacturers closer to small businesses and clients. In both cases, titanium 3D printing is also on the menu, and you have the possibility of selecting the manufacturing processes that best suits your application.

Finally, you can always compare different offers right here, through the All3DP Price Comparison Service. Titanium is on the list and is looking good!

License: The text of "Titanium 3D Printing – How to Get Titanium Parts 3D Printed" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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