How SLM Printing Works

Table of Contents

Selective laser melting (SLM) is an additive manufacturing technique that uses a laser to selectively melt and fuse metallic powder into 3D objects. This guide provides an in-depth overview of SLM Printing, materials, process parameters, applications, benefits, and more.

What is SLM?

SLM is a powder bed fusion process that uses a high-powered laser to melt and solidify fine metallic powder layer-by-layer to build up fully dense 3D parts directly from CAD data.

Laser meltingA laser scans and melts powder in the shape of each layer
Powder spreadingFresh layer of powder spread over build area
Lowering build platformBuild platform lowered before spreading new powder layer
Repeating stepsSteps repeated layer-by-layer until part is completed

SLM allows printing fully dense metal parts with complex geometries directly from 3D CAD data.

SLM Printing

How SLM Printing Works

SLM printing involves the following key components and process:

LaserSelectively melts powder in pattern of each layer
Scanner systemControls laser position and focusing
Powder bedHolds powder layers during printing
Powder dispenserSpreads fresh powder for each layer
Build plateHolds and lowers part during printing
Inert gas systemProvides protective atmosphere to prevent oxidation

The process is fully automated based on the imported 3D model geometry.

SLM vs Other 3D Printing Methods

SLM differs from other forms of 3D printing in key ways:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)FDM uses extruded thermoplastics, SLM uses metal powder
Stereolithography (SLA)SLA uses photopolymers, SLM uses metals
Electron Beam Melting (EBM)EBM uses electron beam, SLM uses laser beam
Binder JettingBinder jetting bonds powder particles, SLM fully melts powder

SLM allows printing of fully dense metal parts suitable for end-use engineering applications.

Metals for SLM Printing

Common metals printed with SLM technology:

MaterialKey Properties
Stainless steelCorrosion resistance, high strength
Aluminum alloysLightweight, ductile
Titanium alloysLightweight, high strength
Nickel alloysHeat and corrosion resistance
Cobalt-ChromeBiocompatibility, wear resistance
Tool steelsHigh hardness, thermal stability

A range of metals are printed with SLM for different applications requiring specific material properties.

SLM Process Parameters

Critical SLM process parameters:

ParameterTypical Range
Laser power100-400 W
Scanning speed100-5000 mm/s
Hatch spacing50-200 μm
Layer thickness20-100 μm
Spot size50-100 μm
Build chamber atmosphereArgon or nitrogen

These parameters are optimized depending on the material, part geometry, build speed and mechanical properties required.

Benefits of SLM Printing

Key advantages of SLM printing:

  • Ability to create complex geometries not possible with machining
  • Significantly shorter lead times compared to machining
  • Minimal material waste and lower buy-to-fly ratios
  • Lightweighting potential with lattice structures
  • Consolidate assemblies into single parts
  • Customized products tailored to customer specs
  • Just-in-time production and inventory reduction
  • High dimensional accuracy and repeatability
  • Good surface finish and fine resolution

SLM provides significant cost and time savings for low to medium volume production.

SLM Applications

IndustryCommon Applications
AerospaceTurbine blades, structural brackets, engine components
MedicalDental copings, implants, surgical instruments
AutomotiveLightweight components, custom prototypes
IndustrialLightweight robotic parts, jigs, fixtures, tooling

SLM is used across industries to produce high-performance end-use metal parts with reduced lead times.

Post-Processing for SLM Parts

Typical SLM part post-processing steps:

  • Support structure removal using EDM
  • Surface machining to improve finish
  • Drilling holes, tapping threads
  • Heat treatment to enhance properties
  • Hot isostatic pressing to eliminate internal voids
  • Surface treatments like bead blasting, anodizing, coating

Post-processing tailors the parts to meet application requirements.

SLM Design Guidelines

Key SLM design considerations:

  • Optimize geometries to reduce support structures
  • Maintain minimum wall thickness for better heat dissipation
  • Use fine lattice structures to reduce weight
  • Design self-supporting geometries to avoid supports
  • Allow for post-machining tolerances and surface finish
  • Orient parts to minimize stair-step effect
  • Consider effects of thermal stresses during printing
  • Design-in features like tabs to ease support removal

Simulation tools help evaluate SLM printability during the design phase itself.

SLM Printing Equipment

Major SLM system manufacturers:

EOSEOS M series
3D SystemsProX DMP series
RenishawAM series
GE AdditiveConcept Laser M2
SLM SolutionsSLM 500

These turnkey systems provide automated SLM printing capabilities in different build sizes.

SLM Printing

SLM Cost Economics

SLM printing costs vary based on:

  • Machine purchase costs – $0.5M to $1.5M
  • Material costs – $50-$150/kg for common metals
  • Labor costs – machine operation, post-processing
  • Build rates – 5-100 cm3/hr depending on parameters
  • Economies of scale from higher production volumes

SLM is most cost-effective for complex low-to-medium volume production compared to other metals manufacturing processes.

Challenges of SLM Printing

Some challenges associated with SLM include:

  • High residual stresses can cause part distortions
  • Anisotropic material properties depending on build orientation
  • Limitations on maximum part size
  • Removing powder from internal channels
  • Achieving surface finish comparable to machining
  • Need for support structures on overhangs
  • Specialized operator training required
  • Powder handling risks require safety precautions

However, ongoing development is helping resolve many of these challenges.

Future Outlook for SLM

The future outlook for SLM printing is positive:

  • Improved part quality with fewer defects
  • Larger build volumes enable bigger parts
  • Faster build speeds driven by higher laser powers
  • New materials development expands applications
  • Hybrid manufacturing combining SLM with machining
  • Automated powder handling and post-processing
  • Mainstream adoption across wider range of industries
  • Declining costs make it economical for more applications

These advancements will enable SLM printed metal parts to compete with conventional manufacturing processes for an increasing number of applications.

Choosing an SLM Printing Service Provider

Here are important factors when selecting an SLM service provider:

  • Experience specifically with SLM technology
  • Range of equipment and build sizes offered
  • Materials expertise with different metal alloys
  • Secondary processing capabilities like heat treating
  • Quality certifications like ISO 9001 and AS9100
  • Design optimization and engineering support
  • Lead time and on-time delivery track record
  • Client references and testimonials
  • Pricing structure – part vs volume pricing

Choosing a reliable SLM service partner ensures high quality parts produced efficiently.

Pros and Cons of SLM Printing


  • Complex geometries not possible with machining
  • Fast turnaround times from CAD to part
  • Low material waste and buy-to-fly ratios
  • Lightweighting through optimized designs
  • Consolidate assemblies into single printed parts
  • Customized, just-in-time production potential
  • Eliminates costs of tooling, jigs, fixtures


  • High machine capital investment
  • Limited size based on build chamber dimensions
  • Post-processing often required to finish parts
  • Anisotropic properties depending on build orientation
  • Lack of design standards for additive manufacturing
  • Material options more limited than with machining
  • Requires trained personnel to operate equipment

For low to medium volume production, SLM can provide significant advantages but it does have limitations to consider.

SLM Printing


What materials are used in SLM?Common SLM materials include stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, nickel alloys, tool steels, and cobalt-chrome.
What industries use SLM printing?Aerospace, medical, automotive, and industrial sectors are leading adopters of SLM.
Can metal parts from SLM be used directly?Most SLM parts need post-processing like surface finishing and heat treating before use as end-use components.
Is SLM printing suitable for mass production?No, SLM printing is better suited for small to medium batch sizes rather than mass production volumes.
What precision and surface finish can SLM achieve?Precision of +/- 0.1-0.2% is possible. Surface roughness ranges from 10-30 μm before finishing.


SLM printing enables on-demand production of complex, high-performance metal parts with a digital manufacturing workflow. As the technology continues to mature, SLM will become viable for more mainstream applications across different industries. The unique capabilities of SLM printing will empower engineers and designers to create innovative next-generation products using additive manufacturing.

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