Electroforming vs other techniques: A comparison

Explore the differences between Electroforming and other techniques like Electroplating, Chemical Etching, 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, and Stamping

Electroforming is a versatile technique that has many applications in various fields. However, it is not the only technique available for creating metal parts. In this page, we will be comparing Electroforming with other popular techniques such as Electroplating, Chemical Etching, 3D Printing, Laser Cutting, and Stamping. We will explore the similarities and differences between these techniques and discuss their respective advantages and limitations

Electroforming vs 3D printing

Electroforming and 3D Printing are both additive manufacturing processes. Whereas Electroforming builds up precision metal parts atom by atom, 3D Printing works by applying materials in droplets through a small diameter nozzle and “print” layer by layer to build up the product. 

cost efficiency

lead time

design complexity

quality / accuracy

A 3D printer and its corresponding materials can be cheaper than electroforming equipment, so 3D Printing seems more cost-effective when you want to create just a small amount of products yourself in-house. When you are going for industrial scale production, however, the higher the volume, the more favorable Electroforming becomes.

3D Printing of metal parts is still in its infancy. The technique entails printing with minuscule metal powdered parts. After printing, the metal needs to be heated (sintered) in order to suture. In addition to the time-consuming sintering process, the printed layers also need to dry so that they don’t sag. These two steps both take a considerable amount of time, which makes 3D Printing a relatively slow procedure for fabricating metal parts. Additionally, 3D Printing can only deal with one part a time. Electroforming, on the other hand, is much faster a process, during which you can grow a large number of parts simultaneously (in one electrolytic bath).

Electroforming allows for great design flexibility as it requires almost no tooling investment and that it has a very short lead time. With regard to material, however, Electroforming mainly works with nickel and copper. For medical applications, for instance, nickel components can be coated with a layer of a PdNi alloy. 3D Printing also allows for high level of design flexibility and range of material usage are much wider.

Electroforming allows you to grow material on a micro scale, resulting in absolute accuracy and high aspect ratios. The standard deviation of electroformed parts is less than 1% of the material’s thickness. Orifices of just a couple of microns are no exception. 3D Printing can currently achieve 100 micron range of precision at its best. The technique can be 100 times less precise than electroforming.

Compared to 3D Printing, Electroforming has higher accuracy, shorter lead time, and better cost efficiency especially when it’s large volume. 3D Printing allows for better design flexibility mainly due to the fact that it works with a wider range of materials.

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Electroforming vs Chemical Etching

Chemical Etching is a subtractive manufacturing process applied in microfabrication of precision metal parts. Similar to Electroforming, it is known as a fast, accurate, and cost effective manufacturing method to deliver high precision, burr- and stress-free precision metal parts.

cost efficiency

lead time

design complexity

quality / accuracy

The most common rule of thumb is the higher precision it is, the more expensive it gets. Electroforming is an ultra-precision manufacturing technique, allowing for higher accuracy and tighter tolerances than Chemical Etching. Thus it is commonly assumed that Electroforming is a more expensive process than Chemical Etching. While in some cases that is true, in some others, it is not. Depending on product design and specifications, Electroforming can also be more cost-efficient than Chemical Etching. With electroforming in high volumes the mandrels can be used several times. Sometimes even up to 20 times. Making the EF process very cost effective.

Electroforming is a precision manufacturing process that can harvest a large number of products in every run, which makes it more time-efficient than most other precision fabrication techniques. Chemical Etching goes through a similar process to that of Electroforming and thus also has a short lead time.

When it comes to the feature specification, the Chemical Etching process doesn’t allow for control of the hole geometry like Electroforming does. With Electroforming, the unique shape resulting from the overgrowth method cannot be realized with Chemical Etching. However Electroforming comes with the limitation on material: mainly nickel and copper can be electroformed, while virtually all metals can be chemically etched with no restriction in hardness of the material.

With Chemical Etching, a high level of accuracy and precision can be achieved. Electroforming allows you to grow material on a micro scale, providing absolute accuracy and high aspect ratios. The standard deviation of electroformed parts is less than 1% of the material’s thickness. Thus compared with Chemical Etching, Electroforming is at an even higher level of precision.

Electroforming is a precision manufacturing process with higher accuracy and shorter/similar lead time compared with Chemical Etching. It allows for better design flexibility when it is about hole geometry; when it is about material choice, Chemical Etching has the advantage. Electroforming can be more cost efficient than Chemical Etching, depending on product specifications.

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Electroforming vs Laser Cutting

Laser Cutting is a subtractive manufacturing process. It works by directing the output of a high-power laser most commonly through optics to cut materials in order to achieve the desired products. Compared to Laser Cutting, Electroforming is the more optimal choice when it is large volume production of precision thin metal parts, especially when the design is complex and quality/accuracy demand is high. 

cost efficiency

lead time

design complexity

quality / accuracy

When it’s a small volume production or prototyping, Laser Cutting can be more cost-effective than Electroforming. When it’s industrial mass production, however, Laser Cutting loses its advantage in costs and Electroforming becomes the favorable option.

With Laser Cutting, you can’t produce multiple parts simultaneously, while with Electroforming you can. Compared to Laser Cutting, which can only deal with one component after another, Electroforming is a process that can harvest a large amount of products in every run. When production volume is very low, Laser Cutting might have an advantage in speed over Electroforming. However, when it is industrial production, lead time of Electroforming is shorter.

Electroforming and Laser Cutting are both highly flexible regarding design. When the design is very complex, however, Laser Cutting might take much longer time since it can only deal with one part/feature after another while Electroforming works on the complete design simultaneously and can harvest a large amount of product in one run. When it comes to materials, Electroforming has some limitations while Laser Cutting can work with a wider range of materials (learn more about what materials can be electroformed from a previous blog).

Electroforming is a high precision manufacturing process that does not change the properties of metals such as hardness, grain structure, or ductility. With Electroforming, you can harvest ultra-precision thin metal parts burr- and stress free. Laser Cutting, on the other hand, is a thermal process which results in thermal stress, as well as micro burrs.

Thus, compared to Laser Cutting, Electroforming is the more optimal choice when it is large volume production of precision thin metal parts, especially when the design is complex and quality/accuracy demand is high. When it is about material choice, Laser Cutting has the advantage over Electroforming.

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Electroforming vs Stamping

Stamping, also known as pressing, is a manufacturing process that place flat sheet metal into a stamping press, where a tool and die surface forms the metal into the desired shape. The trend of miniaturization has driven the industry to the micro level, which is referred to as Micro Stamping. Compared to Stamping, or Micro Stamping, Electroforming has shorter lead time, lower costs, better quality, and more design flexibility.

cost efficiency

lead time

design complexity

quality / accuracy

Unlike Electroforming, which has no tooling cost, Stamping always requires substantial investment in tooling and installation: both monetary wise and time-wise. One stamping die can easily cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the extra costs for setting up and maintenance costs over time.

With Stamping, the lead time can be 6-8 weeks only for preparing the tooling. Even after the stamping tool is completed, extra time (and costs) will incur for setting up the tooling in the stamping press. With Electroforming, lead time is a matter of days. Compared to those who still stamp their precision metal components, you can receive your ultra-precision electroformed parts even before their stamping tool is ready!

Electroforming allows for more design flexibility as it requires no hard tooling and that it has a very short lead time, while with Stamping modifying a design means making a completely new die and investing on tooling and setting up all over again. This also means that Electroforming is perfect for small amount prototyping as well as industrial production. When it comes to material choice, however, Stamping allows for more flexibility than Electroforming.

Electroforming is an ultra-precision micro-manufacturing technology. With Electroforming, a higher level of accuracy and precision can be achieved. Moreover, electroformed parts are completely burr- and stress-free while stamped parts feature partial burrs and stress at cutting edge. Although minor burr or stress can be acceptable for some applications, it might be a stumbling block for your next breakthrough.

Thus, compared to Stamping, or Micro Stamping, Electroforming has shorter lead time, lower costs, better quality, and more design flexibility (when the material is not an issue).

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Electroforming vs Electroplating

At the heart of Electroforming and Electroplating lies the shared principle of electrodeposition, where metals are deposited onto a conductive object by using electrolytic baths. However, their paths diverge when we delve into their purposes and outcomes.

In electroplating, the deposited metal becomes part of the existing product by plating/coating it. In electroforming, a mandrel is used to create the product (patterned surface), which will be removed from the product. The deposited metal is much thicker compared to the deposited coating with electroplating. After the mandrel is removed, the remaining object is entirely created through electrodeposition. After electroforming, it is possible to perform electroplating to add a coating to improve corrosion resistance or to get a more attractive (cosmetic) product.

To give an example: electroplating enhances the surface of an existing piece, draping it in a thin, protective, or decorative layer. For example by adding gold to a ring. On the other hand, Electroforming crafts stand-alone metal products, often with much thicker profiles and complex structures.

From these two processes, electroforming can be a solution to create unique and complex products, and therefore it paves the way for the limitless possibilities of ultra-precise metal applications.

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Comparison of Electroforming and other Precision Engineering technologies

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