Metal 3D Printing’s Goldilocks’ Choice

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Metal 3D printing is all the rage at the moment. With machines costing upwards of $100,000 and usually a lot closer to a million there are a lot of different technologies and application areas. On the one hand, we see the inkjet people go for in office production of lower cost parts while DMLS (Selective Laser Melting, Powder Bed Fusion) try to tackle fine mechanical parts for aerospace and titanium. Then we have new inkjet technologies looking at printing metal printing to $5 parts in stainless steel. The least publicized are companies using Directed Energy Deposition technologies to make metal parts larger than a meter.

Powder Bed Fusion parts are sold around $300 and are critical parts that have to perform. Throughput is low while post-processing is high. New geometries take time, but many thousands of parts can be made per day. Typical parts for these machines are orthopedic implants and smaller aircraft parts. A key drawback here is part size with the heated chamber in a controlled environment costing a lot to be made. This retards the development of machines to process large parts. Inkjet parts typically are at a tenth or more of the price point but not as strong. They often have issues with shrinkage and new geometries as well, but these systems have lower operating costs. DED systems are behemoths of things, wire arc beasts in steel dinner jackets. The parts all need CNC to be used, and the surface roughness is high, but the parts are comparatively inexpensive. Also, they’re the only systems that you can use to make five-meter wing spar on.

Everyone wants near net shape materials with 100% density and good surface quality. Preferably of course with little to no post-processing. The media generally lumps all-metal 3D printing technologies together and compares them directly while we, of course, know that this is not exactly very fair. Comparing a lot of these players would be like comparing trucks to passenger cars to scooters. Yes, they are all transportation vehicles capable of carrying people and cargo, but their markets are vastly different as is the way through which costs stack up. A scooter may be very economical for carrying two people but not be able to do so for a long while a truck for a 100 Kilos of cargo would not be viable, but it would be the least expensive per kilometer to transport a 1000 Kilos. While the general news media seems to think that one 3D printing technology will conquer all; the industry view is entirely different. Over the past years, we’ve seen devices, vendors and technologies each find their niches and application areas. One technology or product line could reign supreme in dental for titanium for example while no self-respecting aerospace company would take that machine seriously. One 3D printer could win an evaluation for a Ti64 while for a Hastelloy another model from another vendor could easily outperform it, set to the same criteria. While the muggles think we’re all waiting to anoint a Usain Bolt Technology for 3D Printing what we’re seeing emerge is horses for courses. At the moment everyone with a particular part or application is being a rather picky Goldilocks. The consequence of this is that we’re seeing a profusion of different technologies, vendors and propositions for the market.

There is some real innovation there, but it’s mostly alphabet soup that makes it difficult for companies to evaluate technologies. There are no standard methodologies by which to assess parts, throughput, and quality for 3D printing. We see company’s with very conservative well thought out marketing claims backed up by data while we also see brash people who are veering very much into overclaim territory. Through defense contracts, we see DED companies with a strong focus on local markets with little or no exposure beyond these markets. Inkjet companies are focusing on large industrial applications while powder bed is going niche. Some players seem to think that they’re locked in a two horse race with former German friends while others correctly identify very different technologies as muddying the waters. A lot of new entrants coming from welding are selling to their installed base while others are talking more to CNN than to customers. Some new technology companies are ignoring the existing market altogether hoping to capture the imagination of the public. We can also see some companies with billion dollar ambitions compete with companies that are content with slow incremental growth. Everyone uses metrics that are super convenient for their technology. It is a mess.

We can see companies begin to establish themselves within specific verticals, however. Generally, the media thinks that one company will win. In the industry, everyone thinks that there will be a mass die off and a few players will be left. But, will it? Can’t we see strong local and national service bureaus emerge? Isn’t it much more logical for people to specialize in a particular vertical? If we’re looking at opportunities in metal printing, for example, there isn’t a service bureau specialized in metal automotive, there isn’t one for marine only. What if I were specialized in working with Hastelloy for the NRO? Surely then my future would be bright, but no one would ever know about me outside my niche. Won’t for one part one machine be the cheapest? Won’t different firms have preferences for different technologies?

What if we see instead of one winner takes all scenario a more nuanced and more granular development. What if through proximity, specialization and optimal parts, production many companies win in niches? What if whole technologies are limited to certain types of customers (e.g., metal for large corporate innovation campuses; metal for medical devices)? I think that this may be much more likely than we think for many areas. There are currently many machine builders worldwide operating in niches. I believe that in systems integration many companies could yet emerge that optimize toolchains for industries and parts. There is still so much to win in these areas that the battle is far from won. I think that we may be headed for a time where we see a very granular and fragmented market for years to come. Customers will discerningly taste porridge after porridge to find many who for them are just right.

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