Metal additive manufacturing is still young enough as an industry that adoption is a primary focus for growth opportunities. Exposing more potential end users to the right production solutions for their particular challenges – as well as demonstrating that this technology suite can live up to the real-world conditions their applications demand – can be a tricky proposition however. Potential AM users and their companies rarely have budget to simultaneously invest in bringing more than one metal 3D printing technology in-house (if at all), and new users often don’t have the experience with additive to determine which metal AM process aligns with and can be economically justified by their work.
This is the sticking point: How can we as an additive manufacturing industry, as technology and service providers, create a frictionless entry point to AM – one that also seamlessly scales with new adopters into production applications with high value to their operations? My bet is via providing metal AM capabilities as a service.
AM Services Create Accessibility
Additive manufacturing service bureaus are an increasingly popular point of entry into digital production of metal parts, and operate a business model where metal parts are 3D printed on-demand and supplied to customers on a per-project basis. Such operations offer not only a suite of materials and processes already installed and ready to run but also, critically, the expertise to design for and operate them.
3D printing can still seem, outside the confines of our small industry, an unproven Wild West. This is especially true in the case of end-use part production. Design for AM, part validation, quality control, chain of custody, specified materials, real-world performance…the list of requirements for production-grade quality is a long one, and can be even longer for critical-use applications in, say, the medical or aerospace industries. And despite 3D printing’s forty years-long existence, mainstream conversations around these critical manufacturing topics have only begun to emerge in the additive space within the latter part of the past decade.
It’s no wonder such businesses are risk-averse. Their stakes are high, and AM represents an unknown quantity in which they have little in-house insight.
In addition, the ‘dirty little secret’ in metal AM is that almost all technologies require significant post-processing to produce ready-to-use parts. The cost of secondary operations equipment, and the process development necessary for repeatable, high-quality volume production can easily rival the MSRP of a printer installation. Each additional 3D printer purchased may also require specific tuning of precise parameters, and all of this quickly equates to a potentially staggering upfront investment, without a guaranteed return.
AM service providers like third-party bureaus, which operate a range of equipment from various metal additive OEMs, can be a key partner in navigating the uncertainty of adopting a new technology like metal AM, and avoiding premature capital investments in poorly-aligned technology. Understanding where to turn for solutions — and having an expert source of advice — is a tipping point insofar as business decisions around transformational technologies are concerned. The sourcing of complex metal parts can ultimately make or break new product development and manufacturing, and working with an additive service bureau ensures a company will have on-demand expertise in metal AM from the very first discussion.
Perhaps the most significant measure of a business model is the value it creates for its customers. In the case of AM service providers, that value can be quite clear-cut: Accessibility. A well-run, well-organized, well-focused, and well-installed AM service bureau creates opens up an ease of accessibility to all critical components of an additive solution such as:
- Process expertise
- Specifically tailored tech solutions
- Repeatable quality
These are the areas that most often prove a sticking point in terms of AM adoption. Opening up these avenues in a navigable way, and customizing them to specific customer needs, eases technological and strategic entry into additive manufacturing. In short — many companies simply do not need to purchase their own metal 3D printing equipment, or at least not until they’ve demonstrated ongoing, long-term success with 3D printed metal parts, one that justifies the cost of investing in the people and technology overhead needed to match a bureau’s expertise in-house.
In addition to the capabilities of a third-party additive service bureau, solutions providers which have taken a vertically-integrated approach can offer even more powerful metal AM production services, and a closer partnership with their customers.
Vertical Integration Drives Flexibility and Responsiveness
A vertically-integrated metal AM solutions provider is one that has developed their own full-stack AM technology and operates it as a service, with focused expertise and the flexibility to customize production solutions for challenging and advanced applications.
For example, contracting with a vertical service supplier provides access to a workflow across the full product development lifecycle, ramping up from prototyping to production all with the same team, and same technology suite. All that, too, without the friction of switching manufacturing processes when moving from prototype to production. This simplicity reduces risk during production ramp up and makes metal AM more attractive for risk-averse organizations.
Vertically-integrated providers also have the flexibility to modify, optimize, or otherwise tailor their technology to solve challenging problems that may exceed their system’s current capabilities. If, say, an end-user or 3rd party service bureau were to bring a metal 3D printing platform in-house, they would be bound – in most cases – by user agreements, warranty restrictions, and immutable software (or at least be dependent on the OEM for updates). These remove the capability to customize hardware, software, or materials to a particular application, which can handcuff users working on advanced projects with complicated requirements.
With a vertically integrated approach, that process customization can be much more accessible without fear of voiding a user agreement. A solutions provider that develops its own technology has not only the ability, but also the integral expertise to modify its own processes to meet the needs of a customer, which can open up wholly new possibilities and part complexities.
“Rather than be the everything-wish machine, we can now deliver on well-made specific promises,” 3DPrint.com Executive Editor Joris Peels once said following a conversation with our team.
That premise – that promise – continues to ring true when it comes to specificity. Not every component can or should be scaled to volume production with metal additive manufacturing. But for those (typically high complexity) applications which align well with the capabilities of a specific metal AM process, scaling through a vertically integrated service provider can be a seamless, pain-free process.
Looking Ahead, With A New Perspective
Recently, I engaged in a further conversation with Joris to dig deeper into what the vertically integrated service model means for our business and, beyond that, for our industry. My perspective continues to be that vertically-integrated providers enable the fastest, most accessible way to leverage metal AM across the entire product development and production lifecycle for many complex applications.
When moving past prototyping, there are effectively three options to bring a metal AM part to production:
- Buy metal AM equipment
- Go to a third-party service bureau leveraging equipment from various OEMs
- Work with a vertically integrated service provider
When we look into making complex parts at production scale via additive manufacturing, industries have to date been impeded by the need-to-buy mentality for new technology adoption, or by traditional third party service bureaus’ inability to adapt their installed equipment offerings to the quickly evolving needs of today’s engineers and designers.
The third option is relatively unique in the AM industry, and few companies to date operate with that strategy, but it is a key component of Holo’s business model, and how we uniquely deliver high performance complex metal parts for our customers.
I’m excited to discuss these and other business model approaches in the upcoming AMS panel, Business Models for Today’s AM Contract Services, and look forward to a spirited discussion with expert colleagues across the industry.
All images courtesy Holo Inc.
Arian Aghababaie, Co-Founder, President, & Chief Strategy Officer at Holo, Inc. will be participating at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies business and networking summit in New York, taking place from February 7-9. Aghababaie will be a member of the “Business Models for Today’s AM Contract Services” panel occurring on February 9 at 3:40 pm.
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