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3D Printing Of Plastic And Wax Pattern Prototypes For Titanium Casting
Aug 11, 2016

3D printing of plastic and wax pattern prototypes for titanium casting


Investment casting technology dates back a few thousand years, so sometimes it takes a little shove to move us forward. 3D printing of plastic and wax pattern prototypes for casting is nothing new to our business.  Investment casting foundries have been using this technology for decades.  So, nothing to be worried

about, right?  Not so fast:  General Electric announced direct-to-metal laser and electron beam production printing of titanium in 2016 with flightworthy printed parts for LEAP jet engines.  GE, Alcoa and a host of others have invested billions of dollars in the technology.  Talk about a shot across the bow for titanium foundries:  AM now offers rapid production of complex titanium geometries with properties similar to investment casting, and with advancements coming faster than your Windows software patches.

Ouch.

To say that investment casting can compete with AM may now be a stretch.  Why?  Well, insiders know that castings come with enough baggage to fill more than a few of those Boeing and Airbus overhead bins, including:

  • High tooling costs with long lead times. A significant barrier for our customers.

  • Inability to accommodate design modification. Tooling changes don’t come easy or cheap.

  • Production cycle times in weeks or months, not days or weeks.

  • Dimensional variation caused by tooling tolerance & wax distortion, for example.

So, is 3D printing of titanium parts the Holy Grail?  The death knell of investment casting?  Absolutely not!  But it most certainly is an opportunity to push both technologies to the next level.

OK, there’s no real debate as to whether 3D metal printing will find a conspicuous place in the manufacturing world.  It most certainly will.  But will it be like Dean Kaman’s ‘revolutionary’ Segway personal transporters, or hoverboards (popular with mall cop’s, I’m told, but prone to light your feet on fire), or will it become as ubiquitous as our cell phones?  Only time will tell, but as with any technology, AM is not without its own, overstuffed (though stylish!) baggage:

  • It’s expensive. Metal powders suitable for AM manufacture of titanium parts can be an order of magnitude more expensive than the feedstocks we use in investment casting the same part.

  • The initial investment in vacuum e-beam or laser printing systems and materials is huge. GE spent billions… with a B.

  • The metal making process is still slow. Compared with conventional casting techniques, the cycle time to produce a metal printed part can be hours or days, compared to casting cycles that take just minutes.

  • Surface finishes are limited by layer building depths. Want it better?  More cycle time, more expensive equipment.

  • It doesn’t produce the perfect part. A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University finds that 3D printed metallic parts are subject to micro-porosity that, in some cases, may align to create planes of weakness which can reduce the strength and/or life of the product.

  • You’re not done when the printer is. 3D printed titanium parts require removal of support substrates, customized surface finishing (see item 4), and specialized heat treatments to attain usable properties.  I don’t think this appears in the brochure.

Don’t get wrong.  These weaknesses are not at all likely to topple the 3D metal printing industry, but they DO present an opportunity to hybridize technologies to mitigate the shortcomings of both.

Shenzhen Advanced Titanium Technology engineers have embraced 3D printing technology –not to replace investment casting, but to advance it.  Our customer’s requirements increasingly demand rapid manufacturing –not of prototypes, but of flightworthy hardware.  Printing investment patterns for rapid cast has become a way of life, and carries with it a variety of benefits.