SLM Technology: A Comprehensive Guide

Table of Contents

SLM (selective laser melting) is an advanced additive manufacturing technology for metal parts. This guide provides an in-depth look at SLM systems, processes, materials, applications, advantages, and considerations when adopting this technology.

Introduction to Selective Laser Melting

Selective laser melting (SLM) is a powder bed fusion additive manufacturing process that uses a high power laser to selectively melt and fuse metallic powder particles layer-by-layer to build up fully dense metal parts directly from 3D CAD data.

Key features of SLM technology:

  • Uses laser to selectively melt powdered metals
  • Adds material only where required
  • Allows complex geometries unachievable by casting or machining
  • Creates dense, void-free metal components
  • Common materials include aluminum, titanium, steel, nickel alloys
  • Capable of small to medium part sizes
  • Ideal for complex, low volume parts
  • Eliminates need for hard tooling like molds and dies
  • Reduces waste compared to subtractive methods
  • Enables performance improvements with engineered structures

SLM delivers game-changing capabilities for innovative product design and lean manufacturing. However, mastering the process requires specialized expertise.

How Selective Laser Melting Works

The SLM process involves:

  1. Spreading a thin layer of metal powder onto a build plate
  2. Scanning a focused laser beam to selectively melt powder
  3. Lowering build plate and repeating layering and melting
  4. Removing finished parts from powder bed
  5. Post-processing parts as needed

Precisely controlling energy input, scan patterns, temperature, and atmospheric conditions is critical to achieve defect-free, dense parts.

SLM systems feature a laser, optics, powder delivery, build chamber, inert gas handling, and controls. Performance depends heavily on system design and build parameters.

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SLM Technology Suppliers

Leading SLM system manufacturers include:

CompanyModelsBuild Size RangeMaterialsPrice Range
SLM SolutionsNextGen, NXG XII250 x 250 x 300 mm <br> 800 x 400 x 500 mmTi, Al, Ni, Steels$400,000 – $1,500,000
EOSM 300, M 400250 x 250 x 325 mm <br> 340 x 340 x 600 mmTi, Al, Ni, Cu, Steels, CoCr$500,000 – $1,500,000
TrumpfTruPrint 3000250 x 250 x 300 mm <br> 500 x 280 x 365 mmTi, Al, Ni, Cu, Steels$400,000 – $1,000,000
Concept LaserX line 2000R800 x 400 x 500 mmTi, Al, Ni, Steels, CoCr$1,000,000+
RenishawAM400, AM500250 x 250 x 350 mm <br> 395 x 195 x 375 mmTi, Al, Steels, CoCr, Cu$500,000 – $800,000

System choice depends on build size needs, materials, quality, cost, and service. Partnering with an experienced SLM solutions provider is recommended to properly evaluate options.

SLM Process Characteristics

SLM involves complex interactions between various process parameters. Here are key characteristics:

Laser – Power, wavelength, mode, scanning speed, hatch distance, strategy

Powder – Material, particle size, shape, feeding rate, density, flowability, reuse

Temperature – Preheating, melting, cooling, thermal stresses

Atmosphere – Inert gas type, oxygen content, flow rates

Build Plate – Material, temperature, coating

Scan Strategy – Hatch pattern, rotation, border outlines

Supports – Minimizing need, interface, removal

Post-processing – Heat treating, HIP, machining, finishing

Understanding relationships between these parameters is essential to achieving defect-free parts and optimal mechanical properties.

SLM Design Guidelines

Proper part design is critical for SLM success:

  • Design with additive manufacturing in mind vs conventional methods
  • Optimize geometries to reduce weight, material, and improve performance
  • Minimize need for supports using self-supporting angles
  • Allow for support interface regions in design
  • Orient parts to reduce stresses and avoid defects
  • Allow for thermal shrinkage in features
  • Design interior channels for unmelted powder removal
  • Account for potential warpage in overhangs or thin sections
  • Design surface finishes factoring in as-built roughness
  • Consider effects of layer lines on fatigue performance
  • Design fixturing interface for raw parts
  • Minimize trapped volumes of unsintered powder

Simulation software helps assess stresses and deformations in complex SLM parts.

SLM Material Options

A range of alloys are processable by SLM, with material properties dependent on parameters used.

CategoryCommon Alloys
TitaniumTi-6Al-4V, Ti 6242, TiAl, Ti-5553
AluminumAlSi10Mg, AlSi12, Scalmalloy
Stainless Steel316L, 17-4PH, 304L, 4140
Tool SteelH13, Maraging Steel, Copper Tool Steel
Nickel AlloysInconel 625, 718, Haynes 282
Cobalt ChromeCoCrMo, MP1, CoCrW
Precious MetalsGold, Silver

Choosing compatible alloys and dialing in qualified parameters are essential to achieve required material performance.

Key SLM Applications

SLM enables transformative capabilities across industries:

IndustryTypical Applications
AerospaceTurbine blades, impellers, satellite & UAV components
MedicalOrthopedic implants, surgical tools, patient-specific devices
AutomotiveLightweighting components, custom tooling
EnergyComplex oil/gas valves, heat exchangers
IndustrialConformal cooling inserts, jigs, fixtures, guides
DefenseDrones, armament, vehicle & body armor components

Benefits versus conventional manufacturing include:

  • Mass customization capability
  • Shorter development time
  • Design freedom for performance gains
  • Part consolidation and lightweighting
  • Eliminating excessive material use
  • Supply chain consolidation

Careful validation of mechanical performance is needed when applying SLM parts in critical applications.

Pros and Cons of SLM Technology


  • Design freedom enabled with additive manufacturing
  • Complexity achieved at no added cost
  • Eliminates need for hard tooling
  • Consolidates subassemblies into single parts
  • Lightweighting from topology optimized structures
  • Customization and low volume production
  • Reduced development time over casting/machining
  • High strength/weight ratio from fine microstructures
  • Minimizes material waste versus subtractive processes
  • Just-in-time and decentralized production
  • Reduced part lead time and inventory


  • Smaller build volumes than other metal AM processes
  • Lower dimensional accuracy and surface finish than machining
  • Limited choice of qualified alloys versus casting
  • Significant trial-and-error to optimize build parameters
  • Anisotropic material properties from layering
  • Potential for residual stress and cracking
  • Powder removal challenges from complex geometries
  • Post-processing often required
  • Higher equipment cost than polymer 3D printing
  • Special facilities and inert gas handling needed

When applied appropriately, SLM enables breakthrough performance impossible by other means.

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Adopting SLM Technology

Implementing SLM involves challenges including:

  • Identifying suitable applications based on needs
  • Confirming SLM feasibility for chosen designs
  • Developing rigorous process qualification protocols
  • Investing in suitable SLM equipment
  • Securing expertise in metallic powder bed processes
  • Establishing material quality procedures and standards
  • Mastering build parameter development and optimization
  • Implementing robust post-processing methods
  • Qualifying mechanical properties of finished components

A methodical introduction plan focused on low-risk applications minimizes pitfalls. Partnering with experienced SLM service bureaus or system OEMs provides access to expertise.

Cost Analysis of SLM Production

The economics of SLM production involve:

  • High machine equipment cost
  • Labor for build setup, post-processing, quality control
  • Material costs of metal powder feedstock
  • Part finishing – machining, drilling, deburring etc.
  • Overhead – facilities, inert gas, utilities, maintenance
  • Initial trial-and-error development time
  • Cost declines with design optimization and production experience
  • Becomes economical at low volumes of 1-500 units
  • Provides highest cost advantage for complex geometries

Choosing qualified alloys from reputable suppliers is recommended to avoid defects. Partnering with a service provider can offer a faster and lower risk adoption path.

SLM Compared to Other Processes

ProcessComparison to SLM
CNC MachiningSLM enables complex shapes unmachinable through subtractive process. No hard tooling required.
Metal Injection MoldingSLM eliminates high tooling costs. Better material properties than MIM. Lower volumes feasible.
Die CastingSLM has lower tooling costs. No size limitations. Very complex geometries achievable.
Sheet LaminationSLM creates fully dense and isotropic material versus laminated composites.
Binder JettingSLM delivers fully dense green parts compared to porous binder jetted parts requiring sintering.
DMLSSLM provides higher accuracy and better material properties than DMLS polymer systems.
EBMElectron beam melting has higher build rates but lower resolution than SLM.

Each process has advantages based on specific applications, batch sizes, materials, cost targets and performance requirements.

Future Outlook for SLM Additive Manufacturing

SLM is poised for significant growth in coming years driven by:

  • Ongoing material expansion with more alloy availability
  • Larger build volumes enabling industrial scale production
  • Improved surface finishes and tolerances
  • Increased system reliability and productivity
  • New hybrid systems integrating machining
  • Declining costs improving business case scaling
  • Further optimization algorithms and simulation
  • Automated post-processing integration
  • Growth in qualified parts for regulated industries
  • Continued advancement of complex designs

SLM will become mainstream for an expanding range of applications where its capabilities provide distinct competitive advantage.

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What materials can you process with SLM?

Titanium and aluminum alloys are most common. Tool steels, stainless steel, nickel alloys, cobalt chrome are also processed.

How accurate is SLM?

Accuracy of around ±0.1-0.2% is typical, with minimum feature resolution of ~100 microns.

What is the cost of SLM equipment?

SLM systems range from $300,000 to $1,000,000+ depending on size, capabilities, and options.

What types of post-processing are required?

Post-processes like heat treating, HIP, surface finishing, and machining may be needed.

What industries use SLM?

Aerospace, medical, automotive, industrial, and defense industries are early adopters of SLM.

What materials does SLM not work well for?

Highly reflective metals like copper or gold remain challenging. Some material properties are still emerging.

What are typical surface finishes?

As-built SLM surface roughness ranges from 5-15 microns Ra. Finishing can improve this.

How big of parts can you make with SLM?

Volumes up to 500mm x 500mm x 500mm are typical. Larger machines accommodate bigger parts.

Is SLM suitable for production manufacturing?

Yes, SLM is increasingly used for end-use production parts, with examples in aerospace and medical industries.

How does SLM compare to EBM?

SLM can achieve finer detail while EBM has faster build speeds. Both deliver fully dense metal parts.

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