Electroplating 3D Printed Parts Brings Plastic and Metal Together …

3D printing can produce lightweight and intricate components. However, most 3D printers use thermoplastic materials. Metal 3D printing is possible, but it can be very expensive. Fortunately, there’s a solution for manufacturers who want the benefits of both 3D printing …

Ile Kauppila

May 10, 2022

3D printing can produce lightweight and intricate components. However, most 3D printers use thermoplastic materials. Metal 3D printing is possible, but it can be very expensive.

Fortunately, there’s a solution for manufacturers who want the benefits of both 3D printing and metal materials. That solution is called electroplating.

Electroplating coats plastic, 3D printed parts in a solid metal shell. It can greatly improve their strength, durability, and appearance in a wide variety of applications.

Read on to learn about electroplating, its benefits and applications, and how you can start coating your 3D printed components with metal.

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What is Electroplating?

Electroplating refers to a chemical process that coats an object — like a 3D printed component — in a layer of metallic material. The process relies on a phenomenon known as electrolysis to attach metals to the targeted part.

During electroplating, engineers immerse a positively charged anode (a metal bar used in the plating) and a negatively charged cathode (the part that receives the plating) in a liquid chemical electrolyte. They will then direct an electric current through the parts and the liquid.

The current will cause positive metal ions to move from the anode to the cathode. Meanwhile, negative ions make the trip in the opposite direction. The metal particles take the negative ions’ place, slowly covering the cathode part until they form a thin, solid metal shell.

Electroplating is most commonly used with other metal parts, particularly in jewellery production. However, with proper preparation, it’s also perfectly possible to electroplate plastic 3D printed parts.

In addition to electroplating, you can coat parts through electroless plating. As the name implies, this process doesn’t use an electric current and instead relies on a chemical reaction to transfer the metal particles. The process creates a lot of heat that could warp 3D printed components, so it may not be suitable for all 3D printing materials.

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How the Electroplating Process Works

Before you start electroplating 3D printed parts, you have to consider your 3D printing technology. Not all 3D printers produce sufficient surface quality or use materials that are suitable for electroplating.

SLA 3D printers — like Formlabs Form 3+ — are ideal for electroplating, thanks to the high surface quality they produce. The smooth surface results in an equally smooth and watertight transition between plastic and metal.

The basic electroplating process for 3D printed parts includes:

  1. Printing — Naturally you have to start with 3D printing and cleaning your part. Make sure the material you use can withstand the chemical bath used in the process.
  2. Priming — You must prime your part to create a conductive surface the metal plating can attach to. Manufacturers commonly use a graphite spray to prime their 3D printed parts. You may also need to etch the part’s surface for better adhesion.
  3. Immersion — Next, you must prepare your chemical bath. Attach the anode and cathode parts to suitable fixtures and lower them into the chemical solution.
  4. Electroplating — Direct an electrical current through the parts and wait for the plating process to finish. If all goes well, you can then finish the process by cleaning the chemical solution off the newly-plated part.

The Benefits of Electroplating 3D Printed Parts

But why would you want to electroplate plastic 3D printed parts? After all, aren’t 3D printed components replacing metal parts in many applications?

Indeed, 3D printed parts can be superior to metal ones in certain use cases. However, there are some situations where a plastic component just can’t compete — unless you coat it with metal.

Electroplating offers manufacturers a slew of benefits, including:

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Increase Strength and Durability

Most of the time, metal is simply sturdier than plastic. But giving your plastic parts a metal coating can greatly increase their strength.

Electroplating can significantly boost a 3D printed part’s tensile strength. This is partially due to the strength of the metal itself, but also the slightly higher wall thickness after plating.

As a result, the part will not break as easily under tension. This gives electroplated parts a longer lifespan in mechanical applications without making them significantly heavier.

Additionally, metal can often better resist environmental stress, such as chemical and heat exposure or abrasion. Consequently, 3D printed parts with plating can perform longer in more demanding environments.

Enhance Part Appearance

Modern 3D printers can produce stunningly accurate details and smooth surfaces. But despite that, the resulting parts are plain plastic, which isn’t always the prettiest choice.

Electroplating results in 3D printed parts with a smooth, shiny metal exterior that can give their appearance a big boost. Additionally, the metal coating gives them the same feel as full metal components, which can be a welcome introduction to prototyping.

Improve Electrical Conductivity

Plastic simply doesn’t conduct electricity well. In fact, it’s one of the most common electrical insulators in the world. This makes 3D printed plastic parts a terrible choice for applications where conductivity is essential.

Metals, on the other hand, excel as conductors. Electroplating opens a whole new world of applications for plastic 3D printers. With a coating of metal, they can now serve as components in electrical systems where plain plastic 3D printed parts could’ve never worked before.

Materials for Electroplating

Another great advantage of electroplating is its sheer versatility. Many metals are suitable for the electroplating process, giving you plenty of options to choose from. With different materials, you can easily maximise your parts’ strength, durability, conductivity, or aesthetic appearance.

Some of the most common metal materials used in electroplating include:

  • Brass
  • Cadmium
  • Chrome
  • Copper
  • Gold
  • Iron
  • Nickel
  • Silver
  • Titanium
  • Zinc

Considerations Before Electroplating

Although electroplating can provide significant benefits, it’s not the easiest manufacturing process. As such, there are some considerations you should be aware of.

First, electroplating requires you to use potentially hazardous chemicals that could lead to dangerous exposure. It’s vital that you have proper ventilation in the electroplating workspace and that you and your staff your all appropriate safety measures and protective equipment.

Second, successfully electroplating resin parts can be challenging. Although it’s certainly possible, you can just as easily end up with deformed resin, flaky metal coating, or uneven surfaces. You may want to consider hiring a professional coating service if you’re interested in exploring electroplating.

Applications of Electroplated 3D Printed Parts

Despite its challenging nature, electroplating has plenty to offer for any manufacturer. As we mentioned, the large library of available metals makes electroplating suitable for a great number of industries. These include:

Prototyping

When producing metal parts, it’s often not cost-effective to create prototypes with traditional manufacturing. 3D printing can produce highly-detailed prototypes, but plastic doesn’t give you the same look and feel as metal.

Electroplating resolves this issue, as it makes components that will eventually end up as metal look the part even during design verification.

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Automotive

Electroplating is very common in automotive manufacture — after all, who doesn’t like shiny chrome on their vehicle. Since 3D printing is also becoming increasingly common in car manufacture, it’s natural that the two technologies would meet.

For example, Volkswagen has electroplated 3D printed hub caps for their Type 20 concept camper. Electroplating can also increase durability in 3D car parts in mechanical applications.

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Aerospace

Aeroplane components often face intense pressure and temperature changes. Additionally, they’re subject to high mechanical and environmental stresses, from heat to abrasion.

A metal coating on 3D printed aeroplane parts gives what’s known as a “sacrificial coating.” The environmental conditions can safely eat away at the electroplated metal without affecting the 3D printer part’s structural integrity.

Electronics

Electronics rely on efficient conductivity to function. High-conductivity electroplating allows electronics manufacturers to use 3D printed parts where doing so was previously impossible.

For example, the company Elliptika produce antennas for various industries. Thanks to electroplated 3D printed parts, they’ve been able to manufacture high-performance antennas while cutting lead times and costs by 90%.

Jewellery and Art

Jewellers and artists are perhaps the most well-known users of electroplating. Combining this process with 3D printing opens completely new creative avenues for them to pursue.

With 3D printers, you can produce intricately detailed pieces of jewellery and art at a low cost. Afterwards, it’s easy to electroplate them with precious metals to give them a smooth, lustrous coating.

Medical and Dental

3D printers are quickly making their way into both medical and dental applications. However, some 3D printing materials are porous, which makes them difficult to sterilize.

A solid and uniform metal coating enables doctors and dentists to easily sanitize 3D printed appliances. It can also make implants, like joint replacements, more durable and wear-resistant.

Start Electroplating 3D Printed Components

You now know how electroplating works and what benefits it can bring to your business. If you already use 3D printers, you can quickly start exploring the world of electroplated components.

However, if your operation doesn’t yet use 3D printers, now is a great time to start. For example, Formlabs Form 3+ is an affordable, professional-quality SLA printer. It produces durable parts with accurate details and smooth surfaces that are highly suitable for electroplating.

If you’d like to learn more about electroplating 3D printed parts, contact our 3D printing experts at Solid Print3D! Call us at 01926 333 777 or email us at info@solidprint3d.co.uk.

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