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2022 Predictions: 3D Printing for Series Production of Metal Parts

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It’s time to gaze into the tea leaves and imagine a bright future for 3D printing. In this article, we will be looking specifically at predictions, trends, and developments in laser powder bed fusion (LPBF), electron beam melting (EBM), bound metal extrusion (BME), binder jetting and other metal printing technologies. In particular, we’ll consider the evolution of additive manufacturing for the series production of metal parts, a vertical that will be a topic at Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022 this coming March 1 – 3.

On the whole, the series production segment has been growing very quickly in recent years. We’ve seen an entry of low-cost solutions from the likes of BASF and Markforged, where BME parts can replace some traditional components in industrial settings. Though they may be low-cost, these machines and their post-processing equipment could be implemented by tens of thousands of small workshops, as well. Companies such as Laser Melting Innovations and One Click Metal have also meant that value-engineered LBPF printers could be had for closer to $100K than $1 million, which will also make the market larger. Most of the hype has been around the arrival of binder jet on the scene, which could bring economies of scale. Larger and more expensive LPBF machines have gone gargantuan and multi-laser is going from four to 12 beams.

On the whole I’d expect more Chinese entrants into Western markets, more consolidation, and more focus on the entire process chain. I’d expect strong market growth in the coming year, as well. Software will play an ever larger part in the QA and simulation game and new materials will come into the stream. New technologies will also be commercialized to compete with existing ones. Firms and machines will be more vertical-focused and solution-oriented. Hopefully ,we’ll get some systems integrators that can help build true end-to-end 3D printing factories. We’ll be able to see the capabilities of diode laser systems and some novel technologies for the first time. I’d also expect imminent market entry from some large companies new to the space.

But, what do the experts think? What do they believe the trends will be?

Consultant John Barnes, who has been instrumental in getting certified metal parts on commercial aircraft, told 3DPrint.com:

“[I hope that] LPBF will continue the trend of higher productivity fed by both multi-laser capability and throughput, but also the more intelligent integration of minimized support strategies (software/process).  When these are coupled with more engineers who are trained in DfAM/MfAM, the application space should really open up.  It will be important for this combination to make steady progress (machines + digital + people) for the industry to continue to grow.

“A little competition helps, and it looks like Wayland and JEOL are anxious to re-energize the EB-PBF movement.  Throw in some exciting new software driven concepts that will re-think how we got here in the first place, plus look a lot more like traditional manufacturing from a flow standpoint and a better understanding on how powders behave in these systems, PBF is in for a promising year!”

It’s interesting to note John’s strong focus here on software and training to unlock the true potential of the technology. Another person who is optimistic about the opening up of EBM (E-PBF, as he referred to it) is Freemelt‘s principal scientist, Ulf Alckelid.

The Freemelt ONE open source E-PBF 3D printer. Image courtesy of Freemelt.

“The E-PBF market has for long been hampered by the fact that GE Additive (Arcam) has been the sole supplier of equipment, qualified processes and materials,” Alckelid said. “With all new players entering the E-PBF arena (Freemelt, JEOL, Pro-Beam, ALD, Wayland Additive, and others to come), I think we will see a vitalization of all aspects of E-PBF technology in the years to come: production, R&D, materials, powders. Together, we can puncture all of those myths and misconceptions around E-PBF technology.”

If EBM would become more commonplace, it could really mean great leaps forward in copper and other difficult materials, as well as more industrial adoption. Whereas John is still all about DfAM, another individual is less optimistic: VELO3D CEO Benny Buller.

“The terminally ill nemesis of metal AM and LPBF, DfAM, will, hopefully after long and fateful struggle, succumb to its illness and go away. The most read article in metal AM in 2022 will be an obituary: Here rests DfAM. Rest In Peace,” Buller said.

The VELO3D management team during the ringing of the bell at the NYSE on October 7, 2021.

The VELO3D management team during the ringing of the bell at the NYSE on October 7, 2021. Image courtesy of VELO3D.

Notice the different points of view here: John sees DfAM as an enabling step to be overcome, while Benny sees it as an obstacle, retarding the growth of AM. I’m more on Benny’s side here and have said before that DfAM is a bit like if we made people learn Italian before letting them eat pizza.

APWorks Jonathan Meyer, is hopeful about our future.

“I see a potential for strong growth for LPBF as OEM’s emerge from the pandemic and find their supply chains fragile and in some areas broken. As they seek to ramp up faster than the remaining suppliers can keep up, prices will rise due to short term supply shortages and opportunities will naturally arise for LPBF to displace traditional technologies in the many niches where it already makes sense on a level playing field basis, but where conservatism has held up adoption so far.”

I really do believe that for a lot of cautious people 3D printing can now have a defining moment.

James DeMuth, the CEO of Seurat and formerly of Lawrence Livermore, looks at it in this way:

“More multi-laser systems will be released but this will result in minimal improvement in speed for LPBF. We’ll also see progress on the capabilities of tuning laser parameters to increase quality (i.e. less supports, higher resolution). But what really needs to happen is that the price of parts produced by LPBF needs to drop significantly to compete with low to mid-volume casting and machining applications while maintaining the high quality and benefits of AM that we’re all accustomed to today (and plus more). Faster manufacturing processes that don’t compromise quality is what will enable mass manufacturing of metal AM parts.”

I would really welcome huge changes in the fundamental economics of Additive. And like James I’m skeptical about what multilaser can bring us.

Valeria Tirelli, CEO of Aidro, a hydraulics 3D printing firm acquired by Desktop Metal this year, has another hopeful message that seems like the perfect way to end this article and begin 2022.

“The year 2022 will be a year of change. After the uncertainty of the pandemic, people are ready to do new things and welcome the change. Now, is the right time because the technologies are available and reliable. AM is at the forefront of technologies that can solve supply chain problems and contribute to sustainable development—producing with less material, what is needed and where it is needed—this is the right way for industrial growth and responsible consumption.”

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