Importance of PBF Technology in Metal 3D Printing

PBF technology can produce production-quality parts that cannot be produced by any other method. 

FREMONT, CA:  In metal 3D printing, there is one significant technology for printing industrial, production-quality parts: powder bed fusion (PBF). PBF technology is extensively used to produce medical implants, gas turbines, aerospace parts, and several other applications across the dental, energy, and automotive industries. It is the most mature and extensively used technology because it can generate production-quality parts that cannot be created by any other method. However, PBF has its hurdles, one of which is the need for supports when printing parts leveraging typical PBF systems.

Not all features need supports, but many do. The features that almost always need supports in usual laser-PBF systems are overhangs, holes, and channels. Considering additive manufacturing is touted to create more complex parts with more intricate features, it can be misleading—and frankly disappointing—to then learn that this can only be done with the addition of many supports and counter-intuitive build configurations. Granted, in polymer, 3D printing helps. This might not be as big an issue since they can be dissolvable or seamlessly removed. But with metal 3D printing, supports can be complex to remove, leave defects on the surface from which they are removed, and add considerable time and material costs to the overall workflow.

The first feature that needs support is overhanging, typically required if they drop below 45 deg. from horizontal. The potential to print those complex geometries and intricate internal features offer the designers and engineers a seamless entry point to adopting additive manufacturing. Without it, extensive Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) knowledge is needed, which teaches the designer the ins and outs of the needed compromises rather than the unlimited design freedom. In short, this technology offers the power to design for optimal functionality rather than manufacturability.

If the part were printed on a conventional L-PBF system, the needed support removal would be an insurmountable obstacle. The number of supports would be prohibitively timely and costly to remove, if at all possible. The need for perfect symmetry on a mission-critical rotating part like this prohibits a tilted print from the start.