1. 3D printing will augment, not supplant, existing technology
Additive adherents have sometimes overstated their case by predicting that 3D printing will soon replace all other forms of manufacturing. That simply isn’t true. It’s much more likely that metal 3D printing will exist alongside traditional methods and occupy a sizable but secondary niche in the global manufacturing sector.
2. Production at scale is still rare
The advantages of 3D printing are most evident when small volumes of highly complex parts are needed, as we discussed here. Large (or even medium-sized) production runs can become slow and costly with most of the technology available today.
2. Production at scale is still rare
3DEO is uniquely positioned in the ability to efficiently transition from prototype to volume production.
3. All metal 3D printers aren’t created equal
A variety of different technologies, from software to printer design to fusing processes (Norsk Titanium's Rapid Plasma Deposition pictured here), combine to define the capabilities of a single 3D printing “system.” It’s important for manufacturers to recognize that these capabilities vary widely, and cost per part can vary with them. This makes it essential to first clearly define the application, then go about selecting the right 3D metal printer.
4. Metal AM is still prohibitively expensive for many applications
On a related note, metal AM is a wildly costly option for many manufacturing situations. Material costs remain sky-high for the majority of 3D printing technologies, and in conjunction with the capital intensive process of bringing an industrial machine online, they ensure that 3D printed metal components won’t come cheap. Companies like 3DEO are pushing to drive these costs down by the day, and economic efficiencies have already been achieved in many cases. While the range of feasibility is expanding quickly, manufacturers should still not expect to replace many of their processes with AM in the near future.
5. The printing cost is only half the total
As with any manufacturing process, part qualification on 3D printed parts can be expensive. Significant testing is important to ensure that the pieces meet design and physical thresholds. If the prototype doesn’t work out initially (or doesn’t translate to production) a re-do can be a nightmare for your bottom line.
6. Post processing requirements are significant
Metal 3D printing can bring several benefits, but surface finish isn’t one of them. The smoothness of a given part varies depending on the producer, but it’s fair to expect metal AM parts to come in with a roughness average of several times that of CNC machining or injection molding. Depending on the requirements of the part’s job, the level of post processing attention it needs can be very extensive or nonexistent. It’s safe to say, however, that you can expect these challenges to be more significant with AM than with other methods.
7. A printer is just the beginning
A metal 3D printer, many of which come with a price tag of over a million dollars, won’t cut it alone. The post processing needs of metal printed parts require all sorts of additional machinery, including furnaces, face mills, and die grinders. The story doesn’t end there, however. The metal AM process also requires equipment that can help support the printer in terms of material use and cleanup.
8. Labor is required—highly skilled labor, to be specific
A 3D printing system, metal or otherwise, requires an expert operator to run efficiently. This kind of talent doesn’t grow on trees. In a new, relatively small field, sourcing a qualified user of metal AM systems can be extremely difficult. The alternative, of course, is to make the enormous investment of time and money into someone with a background that may or may not match up. Either way, this is not a place to skimp on costs.
9. Access to production metal 3D printing is possible without making these investments
These challenges shouldn’t deter manufacturers who have seen a challenge in their business that this emerging technology might solve. Third party providers of metal printing services, such as Protolabs for prototyping and 3DEO for production parts, can provide affordable access to additively manufactured production components for end-use applications. They have the equipment and expertise in-house so that manufacturers can focus on their own core competencies while confidently outsourcing any of their AM needs.
10. This technology isn’t done evolving
While it’s not strictly accurate to describe metal AM as “new” anymore, the innovation occurring in this discipline isn’t showing signs of slowing down. While laser sintering and binder jetting remain the primary processes used in 3D metal printing today, new methods are being tested and implemented that are changing the calculus around what’s economically viable in metal AM.