3D metal printing: bringing the dream to reality

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It is already old news that 3D printing is going to be the next “game changer” in manufacturing; it is only a matter of when. In the last few years, there has been a surge in demand for 3D printed parts, typically plastic and metal ones – not surprising since the CAD/CAM scene has been vastly improving in recent years.

The Asia Pacific region has already started to focus on this fast-growing technology. Governments too have seen this upward trend with countries such as Singapore and Japan planning to invest millions to boost skills in advanced manufacturing, focussing heavily on 3D printing. Global data information company IHS says that much of this funding will be used for the R&D of 3D metal printers that will be able to manufacture industrial-grade end products. This would certainly spell good news for many seeking to improve costs, especially the aerospace industry, whose logistics and MRO costs have gone through the roof.

The rise of the AM players

With the manufacturing world already taken the first few serious steps towards 3D printed end products, additive manufacturers (AM) are all ready to take centre stage, all the way from the 3D printer producers to the powder ones. Metal powders such as 316 and 420 stainless steel, Inconel, brass, bronze, certain steel grades and various other alloys have begun to surface in the market. An exciting time indeed, but not without its concerns as well. Some trends that may be worth keeping an eye on are:

  • Disruption of traditional supply chains since procurement strategies will be re-examined.
  • Supplies of 3D printing materials will definitely see an initial shortage since there are not many manufacturers of high grade, defect free metal powders.
  • More industries aside from the aerospace and medical sectors will be coming on board in the next few years – automotive being the most likely to be a massive player.
  • Alternative printing methods like wirefeed 3D printing are becoming more readily available with metal powders being not the only source.

The need for speed

438A8769One issue that may prove to be a stumbling block for manufacturers seeking to change their procurement strategies by adopting 3D printing is speed. The more complex the molecular structure of the additive, coupled with the degree of complexity of the intended end product, the slower the production process – especially with the smaller scale machines. It also does not help that the price point for these machines gets steeper as they increase in size and functions. In manufacturing where speed plays a critical role in ROI, there has been not much done thus far to overcome this bottleneck.

One Victoria based company, Spee3D, however, believes it has overcome the speed hurdle for aluminium based printing, without compromising the quality of the end product. Based off a project with RMIT on kinetic manufacturing, Byron Kennedy, CEO of Spee3D said that with his printer (which is currently doing only prototyping), is able to print a thousand times quicker than the conventional 3D metal printer. “The conventional (3D) printers use a three-stage process which involve lasers melting a solid (the powder) to a liquid and then cooling it back to a solid form – which just takes up quite a bit of time. For us, we have our machine fire the particles at supersonic speed and when it hits the surface it just sticks thus enabling exceptionally quick forming of the desired shapes. At the same time, the product quality will not be compromised since it is without the thermal stresses and phase changes from the traditional melting methods.” This would mean that the micro structure of the powder is retained throughout the process and a potentially more resilient product is formed.

Targeting the production processes in the automotive sector, the company will also be looking to be able to mass produce aluminium parts across various other everyday applications as well. “The demand for 3D printed metal parts for the aerospace and medical implant market is too small to consider an investment to make a machine to serve them for the moment. However, we should get to that point eventually,” said Kennedy.

With the supposed high production capabilities in terms of quickness, the speed to market process increases dramatically – something which would meet the unforgiving demand pressure. This is in comparison to the casting process which will take more time. Hence with quicker turnover times in terms of productivity, there is the potential for increased profit margins. “This method of 3D metal printing would eventually greatly reduce the costs of the production process on the automotive stage with reduction in lead times,” Byron added.

With the Australian government keen on keeping the manufacturing supply chain within the country, there could be potential for this advancement in metal printing to help the cause since aluminium can be procured from various smelters around the country. And without the cost of shipping, low cost aluminium powder that is processed, will be readily available to adopters of this technology.

The road forward

3D metal printing surely looks to be the future for the production process of many industries. Anticipation of new business models is a must for manufacturers who will face the eventual (and wholesale) transformation of value chains.

There will be infinite possibilities and opportunities but the key would be to find the right leverage point in 3D metal printing as part of production in order to streamline processes.

Regardless of which of these are actually realised, manufacturers will need to find the right way to leverage 3D printing as part of the capabilities in order to differentiate themselves in the market and stay competitive.