AM Investment Strategies
AMS Spring 2023

IMTS 2022: 3D Printing is a Manufacturing Technology. Now What?

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About a decade ago, 3D printing began to transition into an actual production technology. This saw makers of industrial additive manufacturing (AM) systems engaged in a variety of endeavors to industrialize their machines, workflows, quality, and materials to the standards of increasingly powerful clients. At the 2022 International Manufacturing Trade Show (IMTS), the growth that has taken place in the sector was on event, with AM representing a small, but much more mature of the show.

@3dprintdotcomThe AM Pavilion at IMTS is even bigger than it was in 2018. translation: 3D printing is manufacturing♬ GASLIGHT – INJI

With that in mind, it was possible to see how far 3D printing has come, but also what is happening to integrate the technology into the broader manufacturing industry. This was most obvious with HP’s unveiling of its first commercial Metal Jet system.

HP’s New Metal 3D Printer

HP first announced the development of its metal binder jetting technology, Metal Jet, at IMTS 2018. This year, then, marked four years of development for the process. During a press luncheon, Ramon Pastor, HP’s global head & general manager of 3D Metals, explained that the company began by offering what was essentially a modification of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) system for polymers as an alpha machine for partners to aid in the development of the commercial metal 3D printing technology.

 

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Among those partners was Schneider Electric, a French energy management and automation multinational with 2021 revenues of €28.91 billion. Over the course of four years, the partners, along with Metal Jet service provider GKN, were able to mature the technology sufficiently to mass produce a filter for Schneider that would improve energy efficiency for 690V power breakers, while also reducing damage from any potential malfunctioning of the device. Outside of the luncheon, HP displayed numerous other applications, including medical devices and golf club heads.

Parts made with the Metal Jet S100 3D printer.

While implementing such a technology can’t be entirely straightforward, we can imagine that, if the roll out of Metal Jet matches the pace of MJF, adoption will be fast and wide. Just as HP’s lead in this regard led to a flurry of activity around MJF, there’s been growth in metal binder jetting from the likes of Desktop Metal, Markforged, and GE. We’ll also see increased automation, with HP partner AMT perhaps jumping into post-processing of metal binder jet parts. 

Altogether, HP could very well enable mass manufacturing of metal 3D printed parts in a manner not previously possible, just as it pulled off with polymers. 

Improved Powder Bed Metal 3D Printing

With HP kickstarting renewed interest in metal binder jetting, firms like Velo3D and JEOL have given metal powder bed fusion (PBF) firms a kick to increase the quality associated with their own processes. 

While Velo3D showcases the ability to 3D print metal parts with minimal supports, companies like 3D Systems and AddUp have both demonstrated the same capability through changes in software and process control. Meanwhile, JEOL showcased its take on electron beam PBF (E-PBF), which is just one among an increasing number of players looking to disrupt Arcam/GE’s hold on this technology sector. This foreshadows a segment-wide improvement in overall PBF quality. 

3D Printing Factory Automation

As these metal 3D printing trends unfold, other technologies will have to develop around these processes to allow for an automated workflow. This is where manufacturing execution systems (MES) from the likes of Oqton and Siemens will come in. Due to the digital nature of AM and the early adoption mindset of its users, these companies are looking to apply artificial intelligence from design to shipment in order to ensure overall quality and traceability. 

Combined with post-processing from such firms as AMT and quality control from Additive Assurance, it is very possible that we will witness actual lights-out manufacturing. If the dental space is any indication, that could be sooner rather than later in some sectors. Oqton’s Ben Schrauwen explained that with dental aligners, for instance, it’s possible to automate the entire manufacturing process, with Oqton performing everything from scheduling, nesting, and build preparation to managing the machines, 3D printing, tracking failures, tracking CNC trimming and laser marking. 

New 3D Printing Market Approaches

At the same time as the technology improves, we’re also witnessing new business models that could challenge traditional approaches of AM to market. In particular, the industry has developed an application-specific approach, wherein the sales engineer acts as a consultant to cultivate specific 3D printing use cases for interested parties. Now, new startups are flipping the script. 

For instance, Mantle is targeting the existent mold making sector with its new P-200 system, which its founder Ted Sorom says is worth billion. Rather than attempt to impact an entire injection molding business by disrupting how they manufacture things, Mantle is essentially keeping the injection molding element the same, but changing how the molds are made. Its unique hybrid technology sees metal powder deposited and held together with a binder before a CNC mill carves out the part. The result is an extremely high-resolution green part. Because the binder evaporates throughout the build, shrinkage rates are below 10 percent when the green part is sintered. 

3D printed metal molds made by Mantle for injection molding.

As novel as this process is, the resulting component need not look any different from the sorts of molds that businesses are used to using or making. The key advantage is lower costs and faster turnaround times. Mold makers, injection molding firms, and vertically integrated manufacturers can all produce their tools in just days, instead of weeks, at a reduced price. Added performance benefits made possible with AM, such as conformal cooling, can be introduced later on, but even with the time and savings improvements, Mantle offers immediate and accessible advantages to a massive and crucial sector that affects the entire manufacturing supply chain. The global impact is theoretically much larger than the production of rocket engines by PBF and directed energy deposition companies. 

3D Printing Consolidation 

With all of this development occurring within the AM sector, there will be one trend that will be an umbrella for the rest: market consolidation. This was made obvious by Nikon, which headed off IMTS with its bid for SLM Solutions, before announcing two further investments in Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies and Optisys. That is one giant conglomerate taking advantage of a burgeoning sector it could see in its rearview and hijacking it just as its own camera manufacturing vehicle began to break down. 

So, not only can we expect Nikon to grab further firms that can enable its continued existence, but we can assume other similar businesses will do the same. Just as HP had through internal R&D and Xerox had via acquisitions. The tricky part is guessing what this will look like. Canon has to follow suit, due to its own reliance on cameras and printers. What other obsolete industries might need a life raft?

 

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Additionally, we’re witnessing attempts to vertically integrate supply chains in order to avoid disruptions that might come about by global tumult and resource scarcity. For that reason, Nikon not only has a method for making goods on demand, via Morf3D, and likely the tools for doing so, via SLM, but also a key area of expertise necessary to keep any modern supply chain running: the 3D printing of electronics components, via Optisys. It will also need to produce its own raw materials and will meet polymer AM. 

However, if we look further, we realize that Nikon actually has much of this too because it is only a subsidiary of the much larger Mitsubishi conglomerate. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries not only makes directed energy deposition (DED) metal 3D printers (as does Mitsubishi Electric), but also metal powders. Mitsubishi Chemical produces polymers for 3D printing, partnering with AddiFab for a unique injection molding process, while its subsidiary, Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation, produces gas for metal AM systems. 

Though these businesses are formally separate, they are still informally connected and often jointly owned by various Japanese banks. As DSLRBODIES notes, “In recent years the lines behind keiretsu have blurred, mostly due to bank mergers between formerly keiretsu-specific financial institutions. Moreover, the old strong alliances among companies have mostly broken down into more informal relationships, though major companies in the keiretsu meet once a month behind the scenes to discuss and coordinate mutual interests. That would include Nikon meeting in the Mitsubishi keiretsu.” 

With this in mind, we can expect similar acts of vertical integration taking place—”autarky” as 3DPrint.com Macro Analyst Matt Kremenetsky called it. Who, what, where, and when are still up in the air. However, we can look to similarly giant businesses that act as pillars for their national and international economies. We might even imagine masked relationships like those of Mitsubishi to be in place.

Feature image courtesy of IMTS. 

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