A Contemplation of Transformational AM


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Imagine if you could print metal at $10/kg. Would that create a “who moved my cheese” moment for the traditional metal manufacturing industry? Investor pitches for metal printing technologies tout anywhere from an $8B to $1T total accessible market, however Additive Manufacturing (AM) has only taken a small nibble at the metals pie to date coming in at 1%. To truly disrupt, a metal printing technology must achieve much higher market penetration.

Are traditional manufacturers worried? Eight years ago, at a SpeedNews Conference, a sales lead for a major metal manufacturer said, “my boss sent me to see if this 3D printing stuff is anything to worry about.” I secretly smiled imagining the realm of possibilities. 4 years ago, after making an AM presentation at a similar venue, a sales leader from another large metal manufacturer approached me sounding alarmed, “Hey, that looks an awful lot like a forging we currently make!!”, conjuring images of a frantic mouse. The early seeds of disruption were planted and a fear of missing out was growing.

I Don’t Get It!

To adopt additive manufacturing, you must truly understand it. It is not subtractive in reverse and cannot be treated as an isolated process. Business as usual will not cut it from new considerations for equipment, material, supporting processes, supply chain, cost models, and skillsets. We mentioned it was disruptive, right? AM is not the solution for every application but ignoring the benefits of AM in manufacturing is dangerous. If the blinders are not taken off soon, you may find yourself trying desperately to catch up… like the semiconductor company… like the aging metals producer… like the old school construction company…

What’s the Hold Up?

Why has metal AM not achieved more market penetration? The simplest answer is cost.

To replace traditional “heat it and beat it” metal manufacturing methods for volume production, AM must achieve the reward of significant cost savings to balance the big investment and technical risk. To date, the metal powder bed applications with the biggest pay off harness the power of Designing for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM). Part for part replacement solutions struggle to compete on a cost basis, as highlighted by my fellow TBGA ADDvisor® Dr. Tim Simpson here. So, what is the cost reduction recipe that will unlock mass disruption?

The Recipe for Transformational AM

Let us go back to our original statement:

Imagine if you could print metal at $10/kg.

Productivity is a useful metric to evaluate not just the speed of the process, but the overall value of the speed relative to equipment cost, as discussed in John E. Barnes’s article on the economics of current multi-laser powder bed fusion machines. While it is not the only consideration, it is an important indicator; to be truly transformational, AM process costs must be competitive with legacy processes while offering something more such as system-level design flexibility, performance improvements, supply chain agility, schedule reductions, etc. This requires innovations in materials, processes, and design; three inter-related variables that form the “AM triangle”. Today, design and efficient material utilization is one of the biggest drivers in the AM cost equation, but that factor will diminish as total cost is reduced.

Figure 1 is a plot of productivity for various metal manufacturing “shape creation” processes capable of making small to medium sized parts with reasonable feature fidelity. The green arrow highlights a band called “Transformational AM”. Our The Barnes Global Advisors team agrees that a metal AM process that can meet the productivity band of 5-35 $/kg for volume production has the potential of disrupting machining, many forms of castings, and possibly forgings. This could release a total accessible market upwards of $100B.  

Figure 1: Logarithmic plot of productivity ($/kg) for shape creation using multiple metal manufacturing processes, both traditional (black) and powder bed AM (blue).

The Impact

Transformational AM would enable the systems of the future for mobility, energy, healthcare, and more. The systems of the future will be different from today; how distinct they look and their step change in functionality and sustainability will be based on our ability to invent cost efficient processes capable of volume production.

But this is not just about tomorrow. Product and industry transformation is happening now. Look at Joby Aviation and Lilium as they forge the future of urban air mobility and at Elon Musk and Tesla for mass production of electric vehicles. Imagine the weight reductions, performance improvements, and customization options a transformational AM technology could create.

The pandemic highlighted the fragility of many industrial supply chains. Imagine the role transformational AM could play in creating agile future factories capable of switching products without massive re-tooling costs and time. Imagine how those factories might look, as Janne Kyttanen reflects in his article “Why Additive Manufacturing Will Ultimately Disrupt the Assembly Line”.

Transformational AM will play a key role in the systems of the future. Now we cast our eyes to the AM industry to see who will provide that key ingredient and capture a giant piece of the metals manufacturing pie.

(Feature image courtesy of 6K.)

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