Since the birth of 3D printing, there has been a long discussion on whether 3D printing would replace processes such as sheet metal fabrication or CNC machining in the future.
In fact, this is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.
From the current development trend, 3D printing has formed an effective combination with CNC machining and sheet metal manufacturing, filling the shortcomings of these two processes in terms of forming limitations.
Sheet metal fabrication is widely used in the electrical and electronic, automotive, telecommunications, medical and other industries. Sheet metal is the skeleton that supports and shapes products, such as cars, computers or mobile phones.
The design and manufacture of sheet metal parts are becoming a critical stage in new product development, and the trend is towards diversified and small-batch production.
In sheet metal manufacturing processes, various molds are often used. For example, for automobile sheet metal parts, various molds such as punching dies, cutting dies, forming dies, separation dies, stamping dies, and bending punches are used.
Metal prototyping plays a vital role in sheet metal manufacturing processes, offering a versatile solution for the creation of a wide range of molds. These molds, including punching dies, cutting dies, forming dies, separation dies, stamping dies, and bending punches, are essential components in the production of automobile sheet metal parts, showcasing the significant impact of metal 3D printing as an effective complement to traditional manufacturing processes.
The cost and time to manufacture molds are high, making it unsuitable for small-batch sheet metal production.
Therefore, many sheet metal factories have adopted a combination of laser cutting and CNC bending technology for small-batch sheet metal production.
This process does not require molds, is economical, has a short cycle time, and is suitable for quickly producing simple structured plates. However, it is powerless for some special-shaped sheet metal parts. This is where 3D printing comes in.
A Chinese car seat manufacturer needed to produce a set of new designed seat samples within a week, but the supporting molds were still in production. In addition, the seat set consisted of 78 pieces and had a thickness of 1.5 to 2.5 millimeters. Most parts had ribs and protrusions. Therefore, CNC machining was also unsuitable, so they adopted 3D printing technology.
Faced with a time constraint and the complexity of the seat set design, the Chinese car seat manufacturer opted for practical prototype solutions by embracing 3D printing technology. This allowed them to swiftly produce the new seat samples, overcoming the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes such as ongoing mold production and unsuitability for parts with intricate features like ribs and protrusions.
In another use case, a machine manufacturer wanted to produce a silencer consisting of four components, with a uniform thickness of 0.73 millimeters for the outer shell and 0.6 millimeters for the middle structural area.
The metal plate structure of these four components was complex and could not be manufactured by cutting and bending. Due to its thin wall thickness, it could not be manufactured by milling. Therefore, there were only two choices: stamping or 3D printing.
Stamping has the advantages of high precision and the ability to realize design functions, but the mold production cycle is long and expensive. Metal 3D printing can be delivered in only three days and can also fully realize the design functions.
Today, as products become more diverse, the demand for diversity and small-batch production of parts in manufacturing processes continues to increase.
Therefore, many manufacturers believe that the integrated production mode of sheet metal fabrication, CNC machining, and 3D printing will be one of the mainstream modes of future manufacturing industry.