Moving Metal AM Forward

Additive-manufacturing system providers still see technical and throughput challenges, but significant market inroads will be made in 2020.

Sample additively manufactured parts demonstrate how Velo3D’s metal printing process can produce intricate geometries for automotive, aerospace, oil & gas and other industrial markets. (Velo3D)

The global 3D-printing metals market was estimated to be US $774 million in 2019, according to a recent research report by MarketsandMarkets. The research company projects the market to reach more than US $3.1 billion by 2024, at a compound annual growth rate of 32.5% from 2019 to 2024. Driving this growth is the increasing demand for 3D-printed metals from aerospace & defense and automotive end-use industries, low manufacturing cost, and reduction in lead times, the report says.

Sigma Labs has developed proprietary hardware and software technology that uses thermal readings to detect and predict anomalies during the 3D printing process. (Sigma Labs)

Another key factor that will influence growth is quality assurance: metal additive manufacturing (AM) machines must be able to consistently produce a high level of repeatable quality parts. “In-process quality monitoring and assurance must be a stronger focus for solution providers as OEMs want to move away from 100% post-inspection,” said Dr. Zach Murphree, VP of technical partnerships, Velo3D. “Measuring mechanical integrity and detecting surface defects and porosity are vital for part quality, and every solution provider needs to seriously think about how their solution will do that. Whoever is able to do that for mission-critical components is going to win. Machine OEMs and third parties will need to address these needs through their product roadmaps.”

Companies like Sigma Labs are beginning to offer technology that allow real-time monitoring of machines as parts are being made. “Our hardware/software package is observing and assessing what is going on in there, and we are able to extract from thermal information when a part is beginning to drift out of specification,” said Sigma Labs president and CEO John Rice in a recent interview with NetworkNewsAudio, a NetworkNewsWire solution. “We can spot the precursors of a quality problem. We can alert the machine operator, who can stop it and make a correction and save the part and very often save the build.”

Rice believes quality challenges are the industry’s “major roadblock,” but feels technology like the company’s PrintRite3D 5.1 will help metal 3D printing eventually transform the manufacturing landscape. “Today you can find a subassembly of 20 or 40 parts, and you can use 3D metal manufacturing to make that whole assembly as one part, and it can have very complex geometry and very high-performance standards,” he said. “It will lead to a different configuration of how factories work in the future. You will not only have traditional factories with a whole line of manufacturing machines, but you will also have internet of things (IoT) factories where, in the same way that the distribution of parts has been completely changed by Amazon and Walmart, so this technology can change the distribution of manufacturing.”

Sigma Labs currently has six enterprise companies – three OEMs and three end users – that were expected to complete the test and evaluation phases of equipment in their shops in early 2020. “2019 was about getting into the market,” Rice said, “and 2020 is about harvesting the market.”

Challenges to overcome

PrintRite3D Inspect features new thermal energy density (TED) algorithms that offer resolution down to 100 microns. (Sigma Labs)
6K’s UniMelt microwave plasma platform can now produce AM powders derived from sustainable sources. (6K)
6K can specifically target the powder size distribution to the AM process, whether MIM, LPBF, EBM, DED or Binder-jetting. (6K)

What does the metal AM industry need to work on in 2020? This is the question additive-manufacturing system provider Velo3D asked of a variety of non-customer AM experts, seeking insights about developments coming in the next year. The survey uncovered a range of areas that still need to be addressed for the market to reach its full potential.

Education and managing expectations will be important, according to Greg Paulsen, director of application engineering, Xometry. “There is still a lot of confusion on what it is, the printed product, and how to best use it,” he said. “Education, paired with more consistent and repeatable technologies, will go a very long way for the field. As new tech emerges in powder bed fusion (PBF), deposition, and binder jetting, we need to work together as a manufacturing community to help new users understand the value of each, as well as their trade-offs.”

PBF is expected to be the largest segment of the 3D-printing metals market during MarketsandMarkets’ forecast period. The technology’s growth can be attributed to the ability to create detailed, lightweight parts through advanced CAD processes, such as topology optimization. The report also projects that titanium will account for the largest share of 3D-printed metals in the next four years. Titanium’s high impact and high-temperature resistance are attractive properties for transportation sectors.

Though significant advances in materials and processing technology have been made in recent years, more improvements are still necessary. “Expect the addition of more non-weldable materials that can be additively manufactured in certain methods, such as Stellite 6 and Inconel 738,” said Yuan Tian, Ph.D. materials scientist, voestalpine. “The LPBF (laser powder bed fusion) process also has to advance in the areas of surface finish, deformation and cost of post-machining; there has to be a better way to stress relieve during the printing process as well as reduce support structures.” Tian also would like to see a larger chamber with electron beam melting (EBM), improvements in accuracy, the ability to print larger parts without bending with directed-energy deposition (DED), and better control of shrinkage with Binder Jet.

Geometric possibilities for parts will need to expand, and printer capabilities pushed further, according to Velo3D’s Murphree. “As an industry, we will need to unlearn certain constraints. This will also require the co-development of advanced design hardware, and a tight integration between these design tools and the print preparation and build-file generation software. Use of the .stl file format will continue to decline, but without there being a single accepted replacement,” he said.

Another must is increasing throughput for processes like laser powder bed fusion. “The LPBF systems will need to have higher print rates and larger build envelopes to open up more possibilities in metal AM,” said Taylor Doty, implementation leader, additive manufacturing, Divergent. “Specifically, the ability to nest parts – i.e., stack them on each other, for higher build density – will be important for speed and increased efficiency. But that requires manipulation of support structures and designing parts with these factors in mind.”

Several experts note that industry consolidation is inevitable. Additive manufacturing has experienced a huge proliferation of new machine suppliers across all AM modality types and materials, said Alex Kingsbury, metal AM specialist, Additive Economics. “These businesses will only be successful where they can clearly articulate a value proposition to the market,” Kingsbury said. “A compelling value proposition in this market will be overcoming challenges around cost, materials flexibility, and manufacturing constraints. Eventually we will see more consolidation of the industry, but for now it’s a sit-and-wait game.”

Differentiation will be key to companies’ survival. “The LPBF market is too crowded with too many companies that have nothing to differentiate them,” said Eric Miller, principal and co-owner, Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies. “Whoever proves that they can decrease cost and increase quality with consistent results will win. All of these other companies with small tweaks and differences that don’t make a big difference, they are going to start running out of money in 2020.”

Metal powder advances

Many companies like 6K (previously known as Amastan Technologies) are developing new advanced materials for additive manufacturing. The company’s UniMelt microwave plasma platform can now produce what 6K claims is the world’s first AM powders derived from sustainable sources. 6K’s process converts certified chemistry machined millings, turnings and other recycled feedstock sources into premium AM-ready metal powder.

“If the AM industry is to succeed in expanding to a far greater number of parts and market applications, powder production technology has to advance to provide a far stronger business case,” said Aaron Bent, CEO at 6K. “Part of enabling that expansion will come from a lower total cost structure and higher performance powders, both of which are possible with 6K’s process. But we need to go beyond that, to powders and business models that consider the full production cycle cost of building AM parts.”

The company plans to extend its capability to feedstock created from AM support structures, non-conforming AM parts post-print, and other unique inputs. Its goal is to use 100% of the materials that enter the supply chain, providing AM end-users a new way to manage project costs and control supply chain, while also progressing toward a circular economy in AM, said Bent.

6K’s Alloy Reclamation technology can reclaim metals and alloys from subtractive manufacturing and other operations. The team is already reclaiming and selling over 500 tons of Ti-64 per year into the aluminum alloying industry for aerospace, medical, and automotive products. 6K claims it can specifically target the powder size distribution to the AM process of need: MIM (metal injection molding), LPBF, EBM, DED or Binder-jetting, thus enabling almost 100% UniMelt process yield, as much as 3-4 times higher than gas atomization.

“This now means that any alloy that is machined has the potential to become powder,” said Bent. “Furthermore, we can create new AM powders previously not possible: powders engineered from non-eutectic alloys such as high-entropy alloys, or designer aluminum alloys capable of printing in powder bed fusion systems.” The company is in the process of building a state-of-the-art 40,000 sq. ft. production facility for AM powders, which was scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2020.