Metal Laser Cutting and 3D Printing: A Match Made in Heaven

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3D printing has captivated the world. And rightly so. Seeing a three-dimensional object materialize before your eyes seems to be one part science fiction and one part robot wizardry. One thing’s for certain — it’s flat out cool.

But in complex manufacturing processes, 3D printing is just one tool in a world where many technologies must play a part. In many ways, 3D printing and online laser cutting services are a perfect match, combining world-class additive and subtractive capabilities that together can create just about anything the wild mind of a fabricator can think up.

First, let’s look at 3D printing.

Additive Awesomeness

3D printing is essentially the act of layering material into geometrical patterns until you have the part you want. It is often called “additive” manufacturing, because you are starting with nothing and adding material until you have the part you want. Technological breakthroughs in 3D printing have made the process a powerful tool for hobbyists, fabricators and large manufacturers.

3D printing is considered an additive process

Advantages

  • Unlimited Creative Freedom: 3D printing can create nearly anything anyone can dream up, without limitations like molds.
  • Rapid Prototyping: Parts can be printed at a moment’s notice, allowing makers and fabricators to prototype rapidly and experiment endlessly.

Limitations

  • Material Selection: While some 3D printers have limited metal printing capabilities, 3D printing is still primarily done with plastic-like materials like ABS, polycarbonate, polypropylene, nylon and other similar materials. Polyactic Acid, or PLA, is the most common material used in 3D printing.
  • Volume and Size: 3D printing large volumes is often simply inefficient. Most of the time there are better solutions for cheaper and more rapid production of large volume orders than 3D printing. 3D printing is also constrained by size. While laser cutting can create an object as large as a huge sheet of metal, 3D printing operates in smaller sizes.
  • Durability: While 3D printing has come a long way in durability and quality, the materials available for 3D printing and the nature of printing in layers makes 3D printing a less than ideal method for fabricating parts that are relied on for durability. While 3D printing is entirely suitable for many products, some products where strength and durability are critical might look to other processes.

Sleek Subtraction

Let’s be honest, subtractive manufacturing (such as laser cutting) often takes second place in the cool contest. It has lasers and sparks and robots, but it doesn’t quite have the mind-blowing sci-fi allure of 3D printing. That’s OK. It’s still cool, and it is still immensely functional. And the truth is subtractive manufacturing has become its own sleek and sophisticated technology in the past several years.

SendCutSend's fiber optic laser in action

Advantages

  • Volume/Pricing: Churning out hundreds of steel or aluminum parts with laser cutting is a manageable and efficient process. This goes back to the subtractive nature of the process — slide in a sheet of metal and let the lasers slice and dice.
  • Material: Laser cutting is virtually material agnostic. While it shines with all types of metal — steel, aluminum, copper, brass, even titanium — it can also work just as well with materials like plastic and vinyl. Where 3D printing is weak in material variety, laser cutting can make up the difference.
  • Durability: Laser cutting works with the most durable, load-bearing materials, making the process perfect for high-impact or long-lasting fabrication projects.
  • Speed: Laser cutting’s subtractive process allows cutting and shipping to happen quickly and efficiently. Proprietary software like SendCutSend’s laser cutting technology, make order fulfillment lightning-fast.

Limitations

  • Dimensionality: Laser cutting cannot match the wide geometric capabilities of 3D printing. If you are creating a complex shape that is more than the two-dimensionality of a pattern cut into a plate of metal or panel of vinyl, 3D printing or injection molding is your solution.
  • Fully Finished Product: Laser cutting thrives on turning raw material into precisely cut shapes and patterns. But don’t expect your pattern to come off the cutter as a perfectly finished product. Some post-processing — like powder coating and light grinding may be required to put the final touches on your product.

Multi-media Manufacturing

So what happens when you put the powers of laser cutting and 3D printing together? They can be the ultimate complement to each other. Together, they create a multi-media manufacturing model that can do just about anything. Intricate, complex geometric parts? 3D printing has you covered. Metal panels, 2-D patterns and intricate flat components? Online laser cutting services can churn them out quickly and efficiently.

Here are some ways 3D printing and laser cutting can combine into amazing projects:

Laser Cut Big, Print Small

Many projects have large, fairly straightforward pieces as well as small, intricate details. Take for example metal coffee tables. Large panels of metal are joined by three-dimensional connectors. A project like this can leverage the strengths of both 3D printing and laser cutting. The large metal panels can be cut and customized by the laser cutter, while the 3D printer handles the intricate, but smaller, connectors that join the legs to the table top.

Play to the Strengths of Each

One of the cooler projects we’ve been involved in over the past year combined 3D printing and online laser cutting. Michael Gillette from Nevada Jumpstarter was tapped to provide medical respirator battery packs on short notice. He 3D printed clips, and we cut aluminum battery cages with a breakless bend (pushing our 2D laser-cutting technology to as close to 3D as possible). Gillette then combined the baseplates, clips and our battery cages into finished battery packs. This project illustrated how plates and cages can efficiently be laser-cut, while the 3D nature of clips make them a perfect candidate for printing.

Experiment

The emerging capabilities of both laser cutting and 3D printing are still being explored. Our clients are finding new experimental ways to push the boundaries of all manner of CNC machining. Projects will come across our laser cutting tables this year that will blow our minds. So experimentation is part of the creative process, and new combinations of 3D printing and laser cutting are sure to emerge as wild makers and fabricators crack the code on cooler and cooler combinations.

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