Recent technological developments and industry trends are greatly bolstering the value of 3D metal printing. Metal product designers and fabricators need to be aware of where the metal printing industry is heading and how the federal Research and Development Tax Credit is helping to propel this powerful technology forward.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Companies in various industires, including firms that utilzie 3D printing technolgies have been taking advantage of the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit since 1981. Firms can receive a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:
- New or improved products, processes, or software
- Technological in nature
- Elimination of uncertainty
- Process of experimentation
Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.
Historically metal 3D printing has been a costly technology suitable only for prototype development, however recent technological advances are changing all of that. Firms like Desktop Metal, with technology developed by MIT, have created metal 3D printers for mass production.
Desktop Metal recently received $115 million in its series D funding. Major investors included New Enterprise Associates (NEA), GE Ventures, and Future Fund. Other investors included Lowe’s, Lux Capital, Saudi Aramco, DCVC Opportunity, Vertex Ventures, Moonrise Venture Partners, Shenzhen Capital Group (SCGC), Tyche, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
The company utilizes Single Pass Jetting (SPJ) processing to develop metal parts 100 times faster and at one-twentieth the cost of conventional metal 3D printing systems. The firm is developing two printer models; one model is a desktop based unit, which is predominantly for developing prototypes, and the other is a more robust unit, geared for mass production. Both of these options are truly amazing and will allow metal printing to become ubiquitous. Design and manufacturing firms that are looking to integrate next generation metal printers into their processes can expect to engage in credit eligible activities.
Laser Printing Technologies
Major industry giants such as GE are making large investments in laser printing technologies. General Electric’s additive division is developing the world’s largest laser-powdered metal 3D printer. GE is planning on marketing the massive machine to aerospace and automotive manufacturers and has demonstrated that additive manufacturing techniques can be used to reduce the amount of parts it takes to produce a jet engine from 855 separate parts down to only 12. The development of a metal printer of this scale will allow manufactures who have conventionally strayed away from metal printers primarily due to size constraints to enter the metal printing space.
As metal 3D printing becomes more mainstream, physicists, chemists, engineers, and material scientists will continue to enhance existing laser technologies in addition to developing new ones. Some of the most common laser based metal printer technologies include:
- Selective Laser Melting: lasers are used to melt and recombine metal powders
- Selective Laser Sintering: mainly used for single element printing
- Directed Energy Deposition: covers a wide range of laser technologies that are predominantly used to add material to an existing object
- LENS- Laser: used to fuse powders into printed objects
- Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication: developed by NASA for aeronautics and can print complex geometric shapes with no material waste
- Laser Metal Deposition: metal powder is heated with lasers into shapes and entails the use of continuous powder streams and gas shaping steams
This is just a sampling of the various metal printing technologies. Any firm that is either trying to improve 3D printing technologies or is using existing technologies or improving 3D printing to develop parts is engaged in R&D credit eligible activities and can use the credit to offset their development costs.
Metal Printing Legacy Parts
One of the most alluring aspects of metal 3D printing is the ability to manufacture parts faster and more economically than conventional manufacturing processes. The aerospace, medical, and automotive industries all provide tremendous opportunities for metal printing, but there is a major factor that is being overlooked. These three industries require a first article inspection (FAI) to ensure that production results meet the original design specifications. FAI is a laborious process that entails a comprehensive review of every characteristic of a part. The process essentially validates the manufacturing process and a firm’s ability to consistently produce a part to the desired specifications. The FAI process is labor-intensive and can result in the failure of multiple manufacturing processes and prototypes and, therefore, is very costly. The FAI process is extremely important because major organizations will only buy parts from a vendor that has successfully completed FAI.
Firms that have already passed FAI for legacy parts and are cultivating metal printing capabilities will have to consider if it is worth undergoing the FAI process again to validate the same part using metal 3D printers. Metal printing startups will also have to consider if it is worth it to pursue the development of legacy parts or if they should focus their efforts on manufacturing the next generation of parts for their respective industries. In either scenario, conducting first article inspections to ensure metal printed parts meet design requirements is a R&D Credit eligible activity.
Regulations, Impeding Progress or Guaranteeing Success
There are many aerospace suppliers who want to use 3D-printing technologies to develop structural parts for jets; however, they are faced with safety concerns regarding the metal printing process. Companies like Norsk, based out of Norway, already have approval from the FAA to produce a small cadre of printed structural parts for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. The firm is currently seeking approval to increase its titanium parts offering. As metal printing technologies progress, manufacturers will have to meet regulatory requirements and perform extensive testing to ensure that new printing processes are able to produce parts of the same caliber as conventional methods. Even though these regulations may slow down the proliferation of this new technology, they are nothing to fret about. Safety is paramount and the rigorous approval process is desired to ensure that 3D metal printing meets quality requirements. Testing activities will help to advance metal printing technologies and can be used to support an R&D tax credit.
Traditional Manufacturing vs. Metal Printing
Many industries require specialty machine shops to fabricate parts in order to meet stringent specifications. CNC machining is a labor-intensive process that essentially requires the development of a new manufacturing process for each part. Even so, once the process is fully refined there is no guarantee that it will work for the next production run.
Many aircraft components need to be made to plus or minus one-thousandth of an inch. When tolerances are this tight, literally anything can affect the accuracy of machining operations. A shop can spend a substantial amount of time developing the perfect CNC process but then receive raw materials from a different foundry, which then can render their process inadequate. Though the raw materials may be of the same specifications they may relieve stress in different ways, due to the unique manufacturing process of the foundry. This variable will affect the way the material reacts during cutting operations and therefore will require a different machining process. Even the motor wear of a milling machine or how recently the machine has bee serviced can affect the accuracy of a cut.
Metal 3D printing is not subject to the uncontrollable variables of subtractive manufacturing. The substrates that are used to produce metal 3D printed parts can be readily standardized, and software can be used to maintain standardization in cases where metal filament reacts in an unexpected way. In the future, complications will be able to be resolved mid-print with the use of advanced software and laser measurement systems. Work-pieces will be measured throughout the printing process and feedback control systems featuring auto correcting capabilities will make corrections before errors become too large to reverse.
Even if manufacturers are not ready to develop production ready parts they can still use metal printing technologies to supplement their current manufacturing processes. The development of fixtures is an essential part of the machining process. When it comes to machining, fixtures must be developed to hold unfinished products through each stage of the manufacturing process. A fixture must be made to hold raw materials during CNC operations, heat tempering, and testing. Developing fixtures can sometimes be just as challenging as developing a part. Metal 3D printing technologies can be used to develop fixtures much faster than conventional means, which makes metal 3D printers a suitable tool for all kinds of manufacturers.
Metal 3D printing technologies are gaining momentum and will soon be a widely used manufacturing process by firms of all sizes. The cost of metal printing is declining, but the technology may still be too costly for certain companies. These companies must consider if they can afford to fall behind with a technology that is at the forefront of innovation. Even contracting out metal printing work can potentially be an R&D tax credit eligible activity that can introduce a small shop to the fundamentals of the metal printing industry. It is recommended that companies seek out advisors that specialize in the federal Research and Development Tax Credit, so that they can maximize their credit eligible expenses.
Charles Goulding and Peter Saenz of R&D Tax Savers discuss metal 3D printing.
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