That's So Metal

Creating Metal Objects with LaGuardia Studio's Xact Metal XM200G2 3D Printers

LaGuardia Studio's two Xact metal printers

Until recently, metal casting was the most prevalent method of 3D printing in metal, which involved printing a wax mold and casting it to obtain a final object in metal (learn more in the Download article, Wax to Metal). The LaGuardia Studio (LGS) has previously employed this technique and still offers it; however, the development of 3D printers capable of directly printing metal has been underway for some time, and LGS has closely followed their progress. During the fall and winter of 2022, the studio received, installed, and began to master the use of two cutting-edge printers capable of directly printing metal.

After extensive research and testing, the Studio purchased two Xact Metal XM200G2 printers. These printers employ a powdered metal alloy in conjunction with high-intensity lasers to melt the powder into its final form through a process known as micro-welding. This technique enables the printers to produce a diverse array of intricately detailed metal parts using a range of metals - currently including stainless steel and Inconel 718, a nickel-chromium-based superalloy.

To accommodate the new printers, which require additional safety measures, a section of the first floor of the studio was remodeled over the span of several months to create an enclosed area containing the printers and post-processing space and equipment.

two crates containing the printers

How the new metals printers arrived at LGS

the printer wrapped for delivery

Halfway there: the first printer, unboxed

Because metal printing technology is relatively new, LGS and NYU users are only just beginning to explore the possibilities, from creating surgical tools and mechanical parts to producing intricate art objects. The only constraints are the size of the object and how heavy it is, as well as the needs and creativity of the user.

The advantages of using metal printers over other types of 3D printing services are significant. For one, everything produced on a metal printer is potentially an end-use part. While some plastics can be considered end-use materials, most are only for prototyping. Metal printing allows for the production of extremely durable parts that can withstand heavy loads and are resistant to high temperatures. It is ideal for producing load-bearing parts with high intensity, and these objects can be made resistant to temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. Therefore, the parts can be sterilized when needed, which is a significant benefit, especially for medical and surgical parts and tools. While some plastics are sterilizable, not many can withstand the high temperatures required for sterilization. With metal printing, objects made of stainless steel 316L can be put directly into the autoclave process, the most commonly used sterilization process.

construction site

Renovation at LaGuardia Studio to create a new space for the metals printers

four people in respirators standing in front of 3D printer

The LGS staff printing their first metal object

Navigating the Post-Processing Phase

While the printing and micro-welding process itself is contained entirely within the printer, what comes off the printer requires a substantial amount of post-processing. The process requires a dedicated environment with proper safety measures and personal protective equipment (PPE). LGS staff were trained to use, maintain, and use PAPR respirators to ensure no particulate matter is inhaled. 

Since the process is a form of micro-welding, the printed object is welded to a tool steel plate along with a support structure, which then needs to be cut off from the plate using a horizontal bandsaw. Removing the support structure is a complex process and involves using a variety of tools such as chisels and punches, a technique commonly referred to as metal chasing. Once the object is separated from the support structure, it goes through the post-processing phase. This step potentially involves quite a bit of work, including manually removing any residual powder from the object, refining the shape, and polishing. Several of the Studio's staff already had some experience with metalworking, but everyone involved with metal printing has undergone additional training to master the process.

Using the Printers

  • The metal printing service is available to all NYU faculty, researchers, and students. To schedule an appointment, contact the LaGuardia Studio to set up an initial consultation.
  • During this session, LGS staff can review your content, provide you with design guidelines, and offer coaching to assist you in designing a product that is suitable for the metal printer.
three metal slugs

two metal objects