The recent MƎTHESIS exhibit on metal 3D printed products (which I organized in collaboration with Autodesk, Lenovo and Laser Metal Fusion 3D printer manufacturer Sisma) for the recent Milan Design Week, helped me and those involved understand that the use of metal 3D printing in commercial product design is not as far as initially thought.
The concept for this event was the same as other events I have been organizing since 2014 to bring the state of the art in 3D printing to one of the premiere global events for the world of design: combining new designers’ ideas, with the software to express them digitally and the 3D printer to make them real. The reason why we had to focus on metal is that in the world of commercial design the quality of materials represents up 90% of the product’s end quality. In the past, with any plastic 3D printing (even high precision SLA and geometrically complex SLS shapes), the products were still seen as “cheap plastic”.
With metal is was an entirely different story. Not only did the products showed shapes and geometries impossible to replicate by any other method, but also they we manufactured in beautiful bronze at a .15 micron layer resolution (with the implication that they could be replicated in just about any metal, including platinum and gold). Not only that: since SLM produces fully dense metal parts, the 3D printed objects are just as ready for “end-use” as a any metal product manufactured traditionally.
Desperately Seeking Metal 3D Printing Services
What became clear throughout the six full days of the exhibit, with over 1,500 people coming through our small location, is that product designers just cannot wait to put their hands on this technology. A very high percentage of visitors asked us for service bureaus that could provide on demand direct metal 3D printing. Apart from i.materialise, Sculpteo and Shapeways, that, however offer limited options on direct metal 3D printing, most metal 3D printing services still focus solely on B2B for medical, dental and aerospace.
That currently makes perfect sense, as the limited availability of 3D printing platform space makes it so that a business prefers to 3D print 15 dental capsules at around $1,000 a piece rather than a tableware item which can be sold at a few hundred dollars at most. These are basic market dynamics and the metal 3D printing demand currently outweighs the offer by and large. This is driving up prices, while the real price of 3D printing a bronze piece of tableware is actually less than $20 of bronze metal powder. Everything else is related to the current high cost of machine time.
Metal 3D printing services currently have an average of two or three machines at most on their premises so they cannot scale up the offer. They cannot even acquire more machines because most metal 3D printer manufacturers – including the larger ones like Concept Laser and EOS, are producing machines up to their full capacity. This means that it takes some time to receive a new machine even after purchasing it.
In-House Metal 3D Printing is Real
This, however, is all bound to change soon. In Germany there are services, like Citim and, soon enough, Bionic Productions, which have up to 20 metal 3D printers on their premises and can thus be considered real metal 3D printing factories. They are also currently producing up to full capacity and have very high prices. This could change within 2-3 years.
Because of the intense competition among both metal 3D printing powder manufacturers and metal 3D printer manufacturers (there are currently 10 different companies producing their own version of SLM systems), there will soon be several metal 3D printing services with a wider range of machines on their premises and that will mean that, sometimes, one or more machines will be empty. That will allow prices to drop drastically, as any empty platform represents a loss of revenues.
Product designers should already begin considering the option of directly 3D print their products in metal. In less then two weeks the designers that participated at MƎTHESIS created a collection of 10 items that turned tableware almost into something precious. These products could easily compete, and even surpass in terms of quality and innovativeness, most of products on display at hundreds of events throughout Milan. For several high-end product design studios and even small industries, purchasing a metal 3D printer priced below $200,000 is a concrete possibility.
Currently the advantages of metal 3D printing are outweighed by the limits in terms of costs and size. That is also changing rapidly, as machines are getting considerably faster, larger and ore automated. However metal 3D printing is, paradoxically, more ready for end use product manufacturing than most plastic based 3D printing technologies so this is something that is going to happen. The only question is when. Judging by the enthusiasm we encountered at Milan Design Week, the answer may be not as far as it may have seemed.