Last month, Xi’an Bright Laser Tech (BLT), a metal additive manufacturing (AM) original equipment manufacturer (OEM) based in northwest China, announced the launch of its first 12-laser machine, the BLT-S1000. A laser powder bed fusion (BPF) system, the S1000 is designed for large-format applications, with a build chamber of 1200 x 600 x 1500 mm.
The standard version of the S1000 is an 8-laser model, with 10- and 12-laser options available as upgrades. Given the large build capacity combined with the production power enabled by up to a dozen lasers, the S1000 should appeal to the aerospace/space and automotive markets, two areas in which BLT has lengthy experience.
The company counts global industrial giants like Airbus and Mercedes amongst its customer base, and, in addition to hardware, produces titanium and titanium alloy AM powders for distribution. BLT also made a deal in 2019 with the industrial gases company Praxair — the brand name of which was discontinued in 2020, related to Praxair’s 2018 merger with multinational chemical conglomerate Linde — to distribute Praxair’s TRUFORM metal powders in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Those powders include aluminum, stainless steel, and a variety of different alloys.
Following its introduction at Formnext 2020, SLM Solutions’ NXG XII 600 has until now been the lone 12-laser metal AM platform available on the market. The NXG XII 600’s speed and precision in handling large, heavy parts has made the system a favorite of companies like Divergent Technologies (the manufacturer behind Czinger Vehicles), which owns at least six of the machines already.
More recently, in September, 2022, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced that it had awarded a $5.2 million contract to SLM Solutions and a partner, Concurrent Technologies, to build the “world’s largest” laser PBF printer. Given the tendency of each side in an arms race to reflexively mimic exactly what its opponent does, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that the Chinese Air Force will purchase an S1000, or that it may even already have one.
As I mentioned in my post last week about Farsoon’s latest releases, demand seems to be growing in 2022 for metal laser PBF machines with larger, and taller, build chambers. Here, beyond the blunt tactical necessity of automating the production of large aerospace and automotive parts, there is the more sophisticated, strategic economic incentive lurking in the shadows: building up the capacity of the defense industrial base to make more and more larger parts stimulates the emergence of economies of scale in the metal powder markets.
In that sense, even if the aggregate weight of airplane and automotive parts that are ultimately printed is never a very high percentage — airplanes and cars weigh a lot: so, printing a very small percentage of the total weight of airplanes and cars produced by the US economy would still equate to demand for massive amounts of metal powder. On a timeline of a few years or so, this should catalyze into existence the ready supply of affordable metal AM powders. On a timeline of a decade or two, this should hopefully lead to carbon-neutral, circular economies for metals being a commonplace. Militaries don’t have to be the institutions that guide this process, but in the world as it presently exists, they are.
Images courtesy of BLT