Various kinds of 3D printing technologies are making their way into the construction and manufacturing sectors. Most people are familiar with extrusion-style printing, but that isn't the only option available. Powder bed fusion uses a laser to selectively melt the chosen powder into the shape of the desired item. From there, companies can reuse the remainder of the unfused powder once they remove the finished product from the fusion bed.

This type of 3D printing is beginning to take root in manufacturing industries. What are the pros and cons of powder bed fusion, and will this technology grow and evolve in the coming years?

1. Pro — variety of materials to choose from

Powder bed fusion isn't limited to a single type of material like some other forms of additive manufacturing. Anything that can be turned into powder and melted into a new shape is possible to use in powder bed fusion, including metal, glass, ceramic, plastic, alloys and many other materials.

In one recent example, Skyrora, a Scottish space technology company, used powder bed fusion to create a rocket engine capable of 3 tons of thrust. It's one of the largest such engines produced in the United Kingdom. The engine's materials included Inconel, a trademark brand for nickel-chromium-based superalloys that resist oxidation and corrosion. Manufacturers often choose Inconel for parts that must tolerate extreme pressure and heat, and it shows you how both familiar and highly specific elements may suit powder bed fusion.

2. Con — slow print time

Unlike other types of metal manufacturing, especially when designing new parts, powder bed fusion can be incredibly slow. The process melts all of the individual particles together and, when you're working with something like metal or ceramic that has a high melting point, it takes time for the finished piece to cool down.

Add to that the time it takes to preheat all of the powder in the printing bed, and the overall process is one of the slowest types of additive manufacturing available to you. One comparative study from Optomec contrasted the speeds of powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition. The latter technique relies on focused thermal energy to fuse the materials as they deposit.

Optomec found that directed energy was 10 times faster than powder bed fusion for printing mid-sized metal parts. While powder bed fusion took 240 hours to make a component in the investigation, the directed energy deposition option required only 18 hours.

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