Metal 3D printing used to exclusively mean powder bed fusion (PBF), which is good at making accurate, high-value parts. Nowadays, a heady brew of hype and optimism has centered on bound metal printing (BMP). But, there is another low-cost metal development taking place that is receiving far too little attention.
Companies such as Meltio, One Click Metal, Laser Melting Innovations, Xact Metal, and Sharebot are also innovating in making metal far more affordable. These firms have been quietly rolling out systems on the shop floor allow people to produce affordable metal 3D printed parts in semi-industrial spaces. Rather than only have our eyes on PBF or bet the farm on binder jet from ExOne, Voxeljet, Desktop Metal, HP, GE, and Markforged, there are new players that could also democratize metal 3D printing. The list now is not exhaustive, but it does comprise a cohort of firms to watch and pay attention to.
There are hundreds of thousands of machine shops, manufacturing facilities and design sites worldwide that could benefit from metal prototypes, metal jigs, fixtures and tooling, metal spare parts, metal bridge manufacturing, small series of metal parts, runs of thousands or hundreds of specific metal parts, as well as customized metal components. Currently, 3D printing could do this, but far too expensively and slowly with full-sized PBF systems or indirectly with a lot of labor and with limited geometries through casting combined with SLA or DLP.
These sites are semi-industrial and have some 3D modeling capacity and some technical people that could operate a machine and post finish parts. They have a real need for inexpensive quick components that are low volume, but continuously made. Their manpower wouldn’t let them run an operation dedicated to filing down, sanding, and casting SLA prints, but would let them use automated post-processing.
It is interesting to note that the full post-processing chain for low-cost, low-volume metal printing does not exist. Therefore, there is a lot of scope in tumbling, shot peening, de-stressing, oven and other equipment for these players. The investment is there and these shops have cash, but semi-industrial sites can’t put in the full Linde gas tower doohickey or spend $100k a year in running costs. This is something that they’d like to do in conjunction with CNC and maybe other tools like laser cutting.
Metal printing for them has to be relatively compact in footprint and over-seeable as an investment. It has to be easy to operate and not be too time-consuming overall. It should be safe with regard to powder handling, explosions, gasses and machine operation. Limits in part quality have to be accepted, but machines should be easy and work all the time. Hence the monicker “push-button metal”. Ideally, semi-industrial sites wouldn’t mind some setup time, but, like as they have with their lathes, they want metal 3D printers to work all the time and be as easy to operate as pushing a button while going out on your lunch break. Potentially Desktop Metal’s Studio and Markforged’s Metal X could fulfill this promise. But, there are other lesser-known firms that could also make true on push-button metal.
One of these is One Click Metal. Now, let’s just pause a second right now to contemplate just how silly this is as a company name. You could see the team arriving at its conclusion much in the same way as we did in the above paragraph. Or just as in the polymer world, “right click and print” or “one-click print” has become a common term (which I invented by the way). We could see how One Click Metal could arrive at the same term.
But, you don’t stop the brainstorm when you get to something more or less coherent. That’s when you keep going. It’s a completely silly name and it’s a tagline, not a name for a company. I couldn’t find their stand at Formnext because I thought it was someone else’s slogan. The name is ridiculous and this is 3D printing, where most of our company names are crap. Areality, sounds like it’s taken from a real estate firm in Austin; Breality sounds too Bro-ish—oooh Creality, perfect. All of the 3D printing company’s sound like an eight-year-old trying to come up with their own Stark Industries.
Key Issues These Companies Must Solve or Avoid
Powder handling: This must be eliminated entirely so as not to cause fire, explosions, or negative effects on human health. Events like that could hurt the industry or eliminate these companies. Most are doing this through cartridges, but some offer wire feedstock.
Processing ecosystem: Powder/material recycling, mixing, sieving, de-powdering will have to be in-office as well. Some companies are working on an ecosystem approach that solves this.
Post-processing: Companies must be able to offer post-processing solutions for these printers beyond de-powdering. This is not being worked on.
Material cost: Materials have to be less expensive than we are used to. A person at a machine shop, up to their elbows in dust and shavings, is not going to pay several hundred dollars per kilo for titanium. Companies are solving this by being less greedy, offering feedstock such as MIM powders or metal wire.
UX: The user experience of these printers has to be excellent. Ideally, these machines should be used by engineers, shop floor workers, marketing people, and everyone in between. Higher utilization will only come with networked printers and easy-to-use systems. Typically, companies are working on UX, but it is by no means perfect.
Software: The software must be easy to use, including file checking and nesting. While the UX on machine software is being worked on the entire toolchain is not really being considered. So far, Markforged is really the only firm taking this seriously.
Cost: These systems have to be low-cost and low in terms of total cost of ownership (TCO). So far, companies are value engineering low-cost systems, but do not seem to be pitching low-TCO or all-in maintenance contracts.
Only if all of these issues have adequately been addressed can we really consider this market to have a fighting chance. Please note the huge opportunity in seats for Autodesk and Materialise for the software to use these machines and the huge opportunity in sintering ovens, small shot peening, small tumblers and super teeny tiny EDM (OK, the last one would be cool, but hard). Again, we see a lot of businesses focus on the gold rush but few on the picks and shovels.
There are still rough edges in this segment. These businesses are shipping their first systems and have been entering the market far too quietly. But who are these companies and what kind of a difference will they make to our industry? Where do they slot into our current offering? Will these businesses be successful? And do they manage to make 3D printing metal accessible? We’ll check out the list of players in the next installment of this series.
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