Metal 3D printing is fast becoming one of the most popular industrial manufacturing processes. It can produce shapes and features that are impossible to manufacture with traditional metal fabrication methods. These include lattices, organic topologies and complex internal coring such as cooling channels. Metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) is a 3D printing process where powdered metal is selectively melted by a laser, on a layer-by-layer basis, until a part is formed. The process makes solid metal parts with a matte surface finish in alloys like aluminum, steel, stainless steel, Inconel (nickel-alloy), titanium and more. It’s better known by names like direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), selective laser melting (SLM), or direct metal laser melting (DMLM) but the processes are in most ways identical. For simplicity, DMLS will be used in this article.
DMLS has added significant value in the aerospace industry, with demonstrated successes like GE’s GE9X engine used on the 777X housing hundreds of metal 3D printed features. The 3D printed parts offer better performance, less weight and fewer assembly parts than their predecessors. The fuel cost savings alone justify the increased infrastructure, R&D and quality assurance required for GE Additive to champion the metal 3D printing-based project.