Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is revolutionizing the manufacturing industry by lowering costs, providing more complex design opportunities and reducing waste. Metal finishing, or plating, helps manufacturers receive even more value out of their 3D-printed parts and products by increasing their strength and helping them achieve low contact resistance. Since metal finishing and 3D printing can complement one another, you’ll want to more about metal finishing’s role in 3D printing.
As you learn more about what 3D printing is, its applications and its benefits, you’ll also want to learn more about the benefits of metal finishing and some potential challenges you can overcome.
What Is 3D Printing?
In manufacturing, 3D printing refers to a process where a machine creates a product or part out of an additive process employing a three-dimensional digital design. This 3D design is sent to a 3D printer that creates a part or product by placing material over a substrate and then “printing” it.
How Is 3D Printing Being Used in Manufacturing?
Due to the many benefits of 3D printing, many manufacturing companies use it to improve their operations. The speed and cost-effective nature of 3D printing allow it to assist with product enhancements, low-volume production and high-volume production. This flexibility makes 3D printing perfect for various companies in the manufacturing industry.
Review some of the main ways manufacturing companies are using 3D printing:
1. Product Enhancements
When you want to improve a product, it can sometimes take weeks or even months to change traditional manufacturing methods to accommodate new product enhancements. In contrast, 3D printing allows you to make product enhancements fast. If you want to improve a product you currently offer and get it out to your customers quickly, 3D printing is a perfect option. Since you can change a product’s design in 3D printing software, you can easily swap out an old product design for an enhanced one.
2. Low-Volume Production
Besides creating product enhancements, many manufacturing companies are using 3D printing for their low-volume production needs. Since 3D printing makes it simple for companies to produce prototypes and new products, it’s a great method for those wanting to utilize short-run part production to see how the market reacts to them.
Unlike more traditional manufacturing methods, additive manufacturing offers a more flexible development process, where you can create prototypes fast and try out various designs. Besides giving you more flexibility with part production, you can use 3D printing to speed up production and have your products reach the market faster.
3. High-Volume Production
Alongside 3D printing’s ability to help companies with low-volume production, it also excels at assisting high-volume production. Production lines featuring 3D printers give manufacturers the chance to make adjustments more quickly to their manufacturing processes. Since high volume production’s goal is often geared toward producing proven products with high demand, you can significantly benefit from the higher speeds 3D printing offers.
When a company wants to change its printing speeds, improve machinery or alter a product, it can do so much faster than it can with older manufacturing methods. As a result, companies can reduce delays associated with changes to their high-volume production processes, leading to greater productivity and efficiency.
What Are the Benefits of 3D Printing in Manufacturing?
With 3D printing’s growing popularity in the manufacturing industry, you can probably guess it has many benefits. Some of the primary advantages of 3D-printing manufacturing include cost and waste reduction, greater in-house manufacturing opportunities and more complex design capabilities.
Learn more about the main advantages of additive manufacturing below:
- Cost reduction: One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is that it’s much less expensive than traditional manufacturing methods and machinery. Since 3D printing is much more automated than traditional manufacturing operations, you can reduce your staffing costs. 3D printing also reduces costs by not producing much waste, leading to lower material costs.
- Complex design capabilities: Traditional manufacturing processes tend to restrict the designs users can produce. In contrast, 3D printing allows companies to create a wide variety of products. While more traditional methods have limitations in the geometries they can use, 3D printing has far fewer limits. For example, you can employ a 3D printer to produce square interior cavities or holes designed to change direction. Due to the fewer limitations, you can produce products with greater design complexity.
- Waste reduction: When a company uses traditional manufacturing methods, they tend to create a lot of material waste due to inefficient practices. Another one of additive manufacturing’s advantages is that it solves this waste issue. 3D printing uses material when it goes through the printer’s extruder, allowing companies to only utilize the amount of material required to produce a product or part. This waste reduction helps companies lower their material costs and market themselves as more environmentally friendly.
- In-house manufacturing opportunities: Since manufacturing companies need prototypes before they begin low- or high-volume production, the ability to use 3D printers to produce prototypes quickly is a major advantage. Instead of outsourcing to another company to produce your prototypes, you can use 3D printers to quickly make them in-house. This ability to create prototypes in-house can help a company start designing and producing new products faster.
- Creating new economic opportunities in depleted areas: Since 3D printers reduce costs over time and don’t require a large number of staff members to oversee them, it’s more affordable to have a successful manufacturing business domestically. Instead of having to outsource manufacturing to other countries to reduce costs, companies can now set up manufacturing in the United States and avoid high expenses. Due to this domestic affordability, manufacturers can provide more economic opportunities to Americans living in economically depleted areas.
Where Does Metal Finishing Come into Play?
Metal finishing is one of the best ways you can better protect a part or product and give it greater functionalities. When a company adds a metal finish to a product or part, they’ll be plating over the item with a metal covering, giving it greater protection and durability. When you print 3D parts, you have a few options for plating onto them, and you can receive several benefits from deciding to plate them.
Learn more about the ways you can add a metal finish to 3D-printed parts and the benefits of doing so:
3 Methods When Plating Onto 3D-Printed Parts
When you want to add plating onto a 3D-printed part, you’ll have a few methods to consider:
- Evaporative coating: Evaporative coating refers to a coating designed to maintain a part’s geometry, meaning the coating is very thin. This coating often provides water resistance or scratch resistance to parts. After evaporating a source material, a company will coat this material onto a 3D-printed part in a vacuum chamber.
- Autocatalytic coating: Electroless nickel plating, sometimes called autocatalytic coating, is a plating method that doesn’t require an electric current to add metal onto 3D-printed parts. Instead, autocatalytic coating involves bathing 3D-printed parts in a specially created solution that triggers a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction then binds the nickel to various component pieces.
- Painting method: When a 3D-printed part needs a thin coating but can’t be heated for powder coating, a manufacturer will cover a printed part with liquid paint. The manufacturer will use a pressurized vessel, pump or spray to apply the paint, and they’ll place a thin layer of metal over the paint to plate the part.
3 Reasons to Plate 3D-Printed Parts
Before you plate your 3D-printed parts, understand the main advantages of plating onto 3D-printed products:
- Increase structural strength: One of the top benefits of adding plating onto 3D-printed parts is it increases the part’s overall structural strength. By adding metal over a plastic 3D-printed part, you add much more protection to it and increase its durability. Nickel plating gives some of the greatest strength to parts, as the material excels at resisting corrosion and increasing the lifespan of products.
- Achieve stable and low contact resistance: Another way plating assists 3D-printed parts is by providing greater stability and low contact resistance. This low contact resistance also increases a part’s abrasion, wear, chemical and corrosion resistance. Some finishes can even increase electrical conductivity in a part.
- Gain RFI/EMI protection: Electronic devices emit radio frequency interference (RFI) and electromagnetic interference (EMI), with these energy emissions potentially causing other devices to malfunction. Plating protects 3D-printed parts used in electronic devices by adding a layer of protection designed to block harmful EMI and RFI waves.
Metal Finishing Challenges for 3D-Printed Parts
While there are many advantages of using metal finishing, you may still face a few plating challenges on 3D-printed parts. By making a few considerations, you can overcome these plating challenges for your 3D-printed parts.
Find out more about some common challenges for plating onto 3D-printed products and some of the questions to ask before you add metal finishing to 3D-printed parts below:
1. Is It Plateable?
One of the biggest plating challenges on 3D-printed parts is that some plastics aren’t plateable. As a general rule, it’s more difficult to plate plastics featuring a high chemical resistance. Some plastics, such as those in the Valox (PBT) family, are very difficult to plate. Some of these performance-match polyester resins you’ll want to avoid include PVC, polyethylene and polyester.
Plastics in the Noryl family can be plated, but they have to be in a blended form before they’re plateable. Some of the main examples of these plastics are xenoy, xylex and urethane. Nylon polymers also have to be placed in a blended form, with examples including PPS, polypropylene and PEEK.
While there are some plastics you’ll want to avoid, you can find plenty that are easy to plate. Some of these plateable plastics include:
- Mineral-reinforced nylon
- Diallyl phthalate
2. Is It Cost-Effective?
Another challenge you might face is how cost-effective it is to plate various 3D-printed parts. For example, if you use non-traditional plastics, they come with higher costs. Since these plastics often end up requiring more setup processes to properly plate them with a metal finish, a company may face some affordability concerns. Instead of using non-traditional plastics, they may want to turn to more readily available and cost-effective traditional plastics they can plate easily.
Besides the costs of non-traditional plastics, note that larger parts also tend to come with higher metal finishing costs. Like non-traditional plastics, a larger part usually requires more setup processes to ensure the entire part receives a high-quality metal finish. Due to this concern, you might want to consider the costs of plating a larger part before you put it into production. If you’re set on using a larger part, work with a metal finishing company that provides cost-effective plating solutions.
3. Is It Scalable?
If you decide to use non-traditional plastics and larger 3D-printed parts, it might make it difficult for your company to scale up operations. Since the costs and time you have to devote to more complex processes will rise, you may not have the funds or time to devote to making these 3D-printed products. Before you commit to finishing particular kinds of 3D parts, you’ll also want to check if they’ll give you the profitability you desire as you increase your production’s scale.
Since scaling on your own can be difficult when you decide to use non-traditional plastics and more specialized finishing processes, you’ll benefit from working with a company specializing in providing metal finishing services. Even if you’re using traditional plastics, a plating company will often have the equipment and processes available to more effectively add metal finishes to them. Due to a metal finishing company’s advanced capabilities, you may be able to make plating a previously challenging 3D part more scalable.
Choose SPC for Your Metal Finishing Needs
When you want to plate your 3D-printed parts, turn to SPC. At SPC, we can help you receive the most value out of your 3D-printed products by providing various coatings and plating methods to give you the protection you need for your parts. Since we’re capable of plating onto complex plastic parts, we give you greater flexibility in the types of products you produce. Our state-of-the-art facility and equipment ensure we always deliver high-quality metal finishing services and make the plating process as fast as possible.
Learn more about how we can provide you with plating onto 3D prints services today. If you’re interested in partnering with us for your metal finishing needs, please request a free quote or contact us.