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Additive Manufacturing: 3D printing vs Electroforming

Mar 7, 2017 7:00:00 AM By Maarten Nijland

Additive manufacturing is a hot-button topic in the world of manufacturing, with applications growing in various industries. Engineers are starting to realize how additive manufacturing can drive continuous innovation for their design. 

In this post we compare 2 popular additive manufacturing techniques, 3D printing and electroforming, in 6 features: Precision, Speesd, Cost, Structure, Lead Time, Material. 

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Precision

Electroforming allows you to grow material on micro scale accuracy, providing absolute accuracy and high aspect ratios. Just to give you an idea: standard deviation of an electroformed part is less than 1% of the material’s thickness. Orifices of just a couple of microns are no exception. Depending on the material used and size of the substrate, thanks to the electric current in combination with the time span, the electroforming process makes it possible to control the thickness of the formed material extremely accurate.

3D printing can currently achieve millimeter precision at best. The technique is 100 times less precise as electroforming. 3D printing’s level of accuracy will most likely stay the same in the foreseeable future. If metal parts with micro precision are what you require, electroforming is your best bet.

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Speed 

3D printing of metal parts is still in its infancy. The technique entails printing with ink that contains minuscule metal powdered parts. After printing, the metal parts in the ink need to be heated in order to suture. This process is called sintering, and takes time. In addition to the time-consuming sintering process, the printed layers also need to dry so that they don’t sag.

The two steps in the 3D printing process both take considerable amount of time, which makes 3D printing a relatively slow procedure for fabricating metal parts. Electroforming is significantly faster since the metal parts are ‘just’ ready after the overgrowth or thick resist process is completed.

Additionally, 3D printing can only deal with one part a time. With electroforming, you can grow multiple parts simultaneously (in one electrolytic bath). So in terms of volume, electroforming is definitely favorable. If you need to produce on an industrial scale, you know what technique to choose!

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Lead time

Lead time for 3D printed and electroformed parts is more or less the same, since both techniques entail production via a CAD file.

If we’re talking about industrial scale production, however, electroforming is what you would want, because the copies can be grown simultaneously.

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Structure  

Most applications made through electroforming are 2 dimensional (2D), unlike products created with 3D printing. However, some industries want their high precision metal parts to provide more structure in all dimensions. This is when multi-layer electroforming comes into play. We sometimes call this 2,5D, since final products are ‘stacks’ of multiple 2D structures. If you want structures that are completely 3D, 3D printing is your best choice.

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Materials  

With regard to material, electroforming mainly works with nickel. For medical applications, for instance, nickel components can be coated with a layer of a PdNi alloy. The possibilities in terms of material usage for 3D printing are virtually limitless. Basically any metal (and other materials) can be used to create parts with 3D printing, so if you require a material other than nickel (with or without coating) or copper, 3D printing is the right choice.

3D printing vs. Electroforming: Cost

What technique is more favorable in terms of cost depends on the volume. The higher the volume, the more favorable electroforming becomes. A 3D printer and its corresponding materials are cheaper than electroforming equipment, so 3D printing seems more cost-effective when you just create up to a couple of dozen copies of your product. However you can always go to a professional precision metal fabrication company for cost effective Electroforming service.

With the advent of the Laser Direct Imager, electroforming has become an even more cost-effective manufacturing technique. Here’s why: with electroforming, production of metal parts depends on the creation of a perfect mold. A mold is created by applying a geometric pattern to a sensitive resist on a substrate by means of light. This was — and still is with many companies — typically done by placing a mask on a photoresist layer and exposing light to the entire mask.  But the Laser Direct Imager (LDI) is capable of projecting high-resolution images directly from a CAD file! Which means you do not require additional tools to create your parts.

3D printing vs. electroforming: recap

Precision: electroforming is 100 times more precise than 3D printing.

Speed (and volume): 3D printing is a relatively slow procedure compared to electroforming.

Lead time: Lead time for 3D printed and electroformed parts is more or less the same when volume is not big. When it is industrial scale production, however, electroforming features much shorter lead time.

Structure: Multi-layer Electroforming can provide complex structures in all dimensions, but it cannot produce fully 3D products as 3D printing does.

Material: Electroforming mainly works with nickel, whereas 3D printing has more options of material.

Cost: The higher the volume is, the more favorable electroforming is.

As you can see, there are quite a few convincing reasons why you could consider electroforming. If you’d like to learn more about electroforming and the benefits it will have for you as an engineer (#1 benefit = innovation enabler!), we recommend that you check out our electroforming whitepaper

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