2023 3D Printing Predictions: Additive Manufacturing for Series Production of Metal Parts


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As the 3D printing industry matures, we can see a stream of very positive developments unfold. Away from the hype and hubris, there has been true progress in getting parts out the door.

Advances in this area have been painstakingly slow. And it has to be. 3D printing technologies are complex and have novel ways of producing parts. Every voxel of every printed component is unique due to the very nature of additive manufacturing (AM). We are not cutting into a known block of metal but building out of powder or streams of jetted material. The challenges of our industry are, therefore, much newer and more complex than those found in other manufacturing processes. As a result, our work in industrializing additive, particular in metals, is far from over.

Globally, there are many efforts underway on this front. We can see more standards, more qualification, more productivity, and more factory level deployments of 3D printing.

Production-scale metal AM is still very rare, however. We spoke to the leading experts in the field of metal 3D printing to find out what they think will happen in 2023 with the technology and what predictions they have for series metal AM for 2023 and beyond.

3D Printing in the Macro Context

Additive Industries Metal Fab G2 Continuous Production

Additive Industries CEO Mark Massey is squarely focused on the most productive and demanding applications, particularly in a larger macro context.

¨We believe that the high inflation and commodity prices are going to have an impact on how customers view labour, energy and consumable costs when looking into series production by AM. There will be an increased focus on automation and productivity, coupled with recycling of consumables, as users get more sensitised to these elements of their operating expenditure. The higher interest rates are unlikely to have a major impact on the acquisition of printers in our view, although there may be more interest in upgrading rather than fully replacing systems in the field. In terms of industry trends, we are likely to see an increased number of AM applications in the defence industry, as countries raise their defence expenditure to replenish stocks or improve capability in response to the war in Ukraine. The energy industry is also likely to see disruption with a faster switch from fossil fuels, this is likely to open the door for further AM parts in the future. Overall, we see a continued strong positive trend for series production of metal AM parts.¨

I appreciate this kind of realism, as opposed to the ¨all companies will print everything¨ approach. The focus on production, costs and automation seem to be very probable indeed. We too are bullish on defense and energy and can see that these market segments are growing very quickly now. I love this answer because all of it presupposes an adoption of AM grounded in reality, real parts and real costs. This is the AM industry chipping away at the problem not being merchants of hope.

The Role of AM Software

We all know that settings, materials, software, machine, and design are the key components of a 3D printed part. But, as indicated by my interview subjects, the focus is shifting towards software in a very significant way. I only asked the subjects what trends related to series additive production of metal parts they projected emerging in 2023. That’s it. Everyone asked brought up software in some capacity.

¨I expect various methods will improve metal AM production rates such as automation in post-processing, in-situ and post-build geometric and defect inspection techniques, and full process data capture and analysis to create a digital twin. It is critical that the entire AM lifecycle be well-understood moving into production and traceability maintained at every stage. The ancillary tools must also evolve along with the AM build process itself,” NASA’s Paul Gradl told 3DPrint.com. Gradl is a Chief Engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center and a co-author of the book Metal Additive Manufacturing for Propulsion Applications. He added, “I find a lot of excitement around the maturation of metal AM processes that have not received as much attention and being used in critical end-use applications. This as well as new metal alloys that were not previously possible to ‘print and process’ will enable higher component performance with improved economic benefits that AM has to offer.”

Software will obviously play a crucial role in the industrialization of 3D printing, but what that time is depends on who ask. Leading consultant John Barnes, of The Barnes Global Advisors, sees design for AM (DfAM) as key to the process:

¨I hope that the software and digital workflow catches up with the printer productivity, or continues the trend in streamlining the operations for the operator and engineer.  Needless to say, wider appreciation of what DfAM is first as a chapter of Design for Manufacturing is necessary for series production. The requirements aren’t going to be made easier Additive Manufacturing needs to meet the requirements. I’ve often said that, AM is like Ginger Rogers.  It has to do everything legacy manufacturing does, as Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in heels.  Meaning, it has to meet and/or exceed the capabilities of existing manufacturing solutions.¨

In contrast, Velo3D CEO Benny Buller believes the opposite:

¨It is simple. Velo3D will exit 2023 as the largest provider of metal AM equipment. DfAM is dying quickly in front of our eyes, yet, most AM specialists are completely oblivious. It is not what you don’t know that will destroy you, it what you think, but ain’t so.¨

Now, I love the scale of ambition here. It’s notable that Benny is going on the record saying that he wants to eclipse SLM and EOS as a manufacturer of metal 3D printers. That in and of itself is newsworthy, but there’s something bigger going on here.

Benny believes that his firm’s biggest opportunities are in eliminating the need for DfAM, whereas, for John Barnes, the workflow has be up for the task and DfAM is needed. Whichever way you see it, software is increasingly top of mind as the most significant enabler for series production.

A Focus on Hardware

We reached out to Autodesk‘s Director of Additive Manufacturing, Alexander Oster, who believes that Fusion360 and other software are key enablers in unlocking the industrialization of AM, as well. But, crucially he sees that software is already at the point where we can shift our focus back to machines, specifically in terms of cost.

¨I think the metal AM space is currently splitting in high end machines that grow in size and capital costs (mainly driven by aerospace applications), and in mass market machines which—at a lower capex and associated risks—will drive lower end applications that do need low part unit costs at a specific quality.¨

This is something that I´ve discussed repeatedly with Alex and it vexes me, as well. We’re seeing huge productivity gains from machines with eight to 12 lasers. This is driving large component production and a lot of industry growth. And we all know how Velo3D, Vulcan Forms, and Seurat hope to disrupt the industry.

However, there is something else going on in the industry, too. In our 2021 Push Button Metal article we identified a growing number of firms that were impacting metal 3D printing at the low end. Alex is thinking further along than just lower cost entrants, however. He’s literally seeing an emergence of specific 3D printers offering a commodity part or quality level that will populate whole swatches of the industry. So, the New Space guys will have the big machines but more average users will be able to get a good enough system that is affordable. The commoditization of powder bed fusion would be a huge development for AM.

Another cost-focused response comes from DB Schenker‘s Jochen Loock. The former Fraunhofer AM expert is now looking to help turn a large logistics company into a powerhouse of 3D printing for maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and spare parts. For those kinds of volumes, Jochen is looking at the market through the lens of cost.

¨Key enablers for maturation over next years are slowly but constantly under way: cost break down due to economy of scale, dissemination in education and the dissemination of best practices as well as the basics of standardisation are being established. Serial production will further mature and disseminate in niches and high value markets such as rail, aerospace and medical. High end automotive serial production and spare parts could be a growth driver over the upcoming year(s). The most important homework for the AM community is to move away from a technology narrative and find profitable solutions to spare part supply chain problems. If there is any innovation breakthrough about to happen, it will be the improvement of process speed in L-PBF by at least factor two through improving process and material interaction.¨

Jochen is appraising the industry here in the harsh light of actual cost and performance. In my mind, the ¨profitable solutions¨ bit is also the real metric by which the industry should judge itself. Parts not pipe dreams.

Aside from large machines and better equipment, ¨process and material¨ interactions can indeed be a significant gain and lead to much better economics with the same equipment. This will really boost margins, reduce the cost of components and be one of the most significant things to impact our industry. And this is one that no one talks about ever. Equispheres has demonstrated this with its aluminum powder.

Metal Post-Processing

One thing that is mentioned again and again is post processing. Who better to discuss this subject than than Solukon CEO Andreas Hartmann?

A Solukon de powdering machine chamber showing a 1 meter part.

¨For production in metal we anticipate a trend towards a higher focus on post-processing since this is the crucial step to influence if you are truly producing in series or not. You can optimize a production process to serial production as much as you want, but if the subsequent post-processing does not meet the same high standards, there will be no true series production. Derived from a flow simulation based on the digital twin, our depowdering systems with the software mode ensure reliable, repeatable and predictable cleaning results,” Hartmann said.

“A second trend is series production in space industry. As written in the media some rocket companies did successful hot fire tests and we are only a few months away from launches to space of rockets with fully additively manufactured combustion chambers. This will be a kickstart for AM series production of combustion chambers and other important launch vehicle elements. In addition, extensive series production will make the question of the ecological footprint of additive manufacturing even more urgent. The question of energy saving potentials, powder recovery and carbon footprint in AM will not only remain an image issue, but will also become an economically important topic for AM companies.¨

Will Metal AM Alter the Course for Polymers?

With deep experience in additive, Prototek is one of the consolidators in our industry. Among its acquisitions was Midwest Prototyping, led by President Steve Grundahl. But, in additive, Steve and his company are focused on polymers. Will developments and excitement in metal 3D printing entice him to move from being a ¨polymers guy¨ to being a ¨metals and polymers¨ guy?

¨As a polymer printing service, we’ve been saying it’s not ‘if,’ but when we get into metals. That said, we haven’t found a compelling reason to divert resources from our growth on the polymer side to take the plunge. Current competition in the binder jetting space along with the refinement of predictive software, and post processing techniques has us hopeful that adding metal services will be realistic soon.¨

Polymer and metal 3D printing services and manufacturing firms used to be completely different worlds and only few companies combined them both in manufacturing at scale. But, its clear from Steve here that Prototek and Midwest Prototyping are taking a close look at metal and what is happening in this market. They see binder jet as the technology to make metal accessible. But, again there is the mention of software as a key enabler. Steve’s considerations do mean that perhaps a lot of new money and capacity will flood to metal in the near term.

In summation were seeing a software-itization of the 3D printing industry. Through DfAM, algorithms and workflow tools, the sector will make big leaps forward in metal AM for serial parts. Additionally, there needs to be a focus on an integrated approach of all the moving bits in an additive workflow. And settings, post processing machines, and better throughput should all be focused on cost, while maintaining quality. We’re entering into real parts and real cost calculations, which will drive optimization and adoption if we can meet those costs per part.

The idea that real production requires realism is the biggest trend we’re seeing here. People are bullish about automotive, defense, energy, rail and aerospace, while New Space seems to be the biggest customer force driving our industry right now. Big machines bought by New Space, aerospace and defense seem to be driving more complex, bigger ticket equipment and end use parts. For the rest, a new wave of low-cost machines could be their path to more affordable series parts.

Feature image courtesy of Eplus3D.

At the 2023 Additive Manufacturing Strategies networking business summit, taking place February 7 to 9, 2023, 3D printing materials manufacturer Uniformity Labs is the vertical sponsor of the Additive Manufacturing for Series Production of Metal Parts session. Taking place on day one of the event, Uniformity Labs CEO Adam Hopkins will be giving the keynote address. Register for AMS 2023 here

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