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Steels – the Unsung Hero Material of Metal Additive Manufacturing

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By Scott Dunham
Vice President of Research, SmarTech Analysis

It’s no surprise that when the media publishes information on 3D printing or additive manufacturing technologies, what attracts the most attention are the extremes –extreme applications, ideas, and, yes, materials. You can read all about the latest cutting edge activity on printing of metallic glass, gold and silver, functioning organs, and even four-dimensional materials.

Those things are exciting and great at attracting research grant money and sometimes even venture capital, but when it comes to the backbone of the industry and generating value for today’s manufacturing end users, one area that is habitually overlooked is printing of steels. Perhaps not the sexiest or exciting area of metal additive manufacturing, printing of steels is, surprisingly, the fastest growing area of metal additive manufacturing last year in terms of printing established metal materials used in manufacturing.

So why haven’t you heard more about it? Well, probably because steels aren’t often considered cutting edge, next generation metals. Or maybe it’s because they’re commonly used in things like oil drilling rigs, shipbuilding, mining, cutting and molding tools, heavy equipment, and other areas of industry that aren’t sexy.

Additive manufacturing technology, however, is set to put a whole new exciting spin on steels, and based on the growth rates of metal powders shipped over the last year, is already catching on quite quickly. Although SmarTech estimates that titanium is still more widely printed than steels thanks primarily to its use in the medical and dental segments for high volumes of implantable devices, that’s expected to change as early as the end of this year, seen in the graph below.

steels AM

Source: SmarTech Analysis

Seen above is the expected share of all metal additively manufactured output from powder based technologies measured as cubic inches of fused or deposited material, by metal type. Steels already are the second most commonly printed material today, but are on pace to quickly overtake titanium thanks to growth in end use part manufacturing growth across a number of industries. The commercialization of many new bound metal deposition and metal binder jetting technologies, all of which use essentially entirely steel materials today, are also a driving trend for steels growth.

SmarTech is bullish on steels as an additive manufacturing material due to four factors.
• Its properties – additively manufactured steels with today’s technologies can achieve excellent properties, and through continued material development these materials can serve amongst some of the most demanding applications in aerospace, nuclear energy, mining, and more
• Its mass appeal – steels are the most manufactured metal in the world, and though there are an extremely small set of popularly printed steels today, companies like Carpenter, Sandvik, Hoganas, GKN, and Oerlikon are all actively developing new steels for AM to tap into the mass appeal
• Its costs – relative to other AM powder materials, steels used today are the cheapest options amongst a field of high end superalloys, titanium alloys, and higher priced aluminum
• Its potential for weight savings – steels aren’t light, in fact they’re fairly heavy and dense. But because of this, their widespread use in industry, and the ability for AM to optimize component design and reduce subassemblies into fewer parts, there is great potential for weight savings in industrial components without having to change materials altogether

In the end, steels will ultimately end up getting the credit they deserve in AM. They are embedded in the very DNA of the industry as the first materials developed for the original commercial laser powder bed fusion systems of the 1990s. And over the next several years they are very likely to become the most widely utilized materials for metal additive manufacturing, touching essentially every area of the industry. And that’s something that just can’t be said about any other metal in AM.

Scott Dunham
Author | Scott Dunham