An additive manufacturing layer technology, SLS involves the use of a high power laser (for example, a carbon dioxide laser) to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powders into a mass that has a desired three-dimensional shape. The laser selectively fuses powdered material by scanning cross-sections generated from a 3-D digital description of the part (for example from a CAD file or scan data) on the surface of a powder bed. After each cross-section is scanned, the powder bed is lowered by one layer thickness, a new layer of material is applied on top, and the process is repeated until the part is completed.
Because finished part density depends on peak laser power, rather than laser duration, a SLS machine typically uses a pulsed laser. The SLS machine preheats the bulk powder material in the powder bed somewhat below its melting point, to make it easier for the laser to raise the temperature of the selected regions the rest of the way to the melting point.
In contrast with some other additive manufacturing processes, such as stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM), which most often require special support structures to fabricate overhanging designs, SLS does not need a separate feeder for support material because the part being constructed is surrounded by unsintered powder at all times, this allows for the construction of previously impossible geometries. Also, since the machine’s chamber is always filled with powder material the fabrication of multiple parts has a far lower impact on the overall difficulty and price of the design because through a technique known as ‘Nesting’ multiple parts can be positioned to fit within the boundaries of the machine. One design aspect which should be observed however is that with SLS it is ‘impossible’ to fabricate a hollow but fully enclosed element. This is because the unsintered powder within the element can’t be drained.
Since patents have started to expire, affordable home printers have become possible, but the heating process is still an obstacle, with a power consumption of up to 5 kW and temperatures having to be controlled within 2 °C for the three stages of preheating, melting and storing before removal.