Aug 5, 2016 | By Benedict

According to a market research report from IDTechEx, metal 3D printing is the fastest-growing segment of the additive manufacturing industry, with printer sales growing at 48% and material sales growing at 32%. Data for the report was gathered over the course of several years.

GE's GE9X jet engine, which contains 19 3D printed fuel nozzles

Even if you happen to be the biggest bedroom 3D printing enthusiast, chances are you don’t own a metal 3D printer. After all, SLM, SLS, and DMLS machines tend to be huge, difficult to operate, and incredibly expensive. But while plastic FDM 3D printers dominate the consumer 3D printer market, experts are saying that the 3D printing of metals is now far and away the most important segment of the additive manufacturing industry going into the future. With information gathered over many years, a report from IDTechEx analysts shows metal 3D printer sales to be growing at 48% and materials sales at 32%.

So why, according to the new report, are manufacturers putting “pedal to the metal” and forgoing plastic 3D printing in favor of its shinier cousin? While FDM 3D printing continues to dominate the consumer market, the reason for the massive expansion in metal 3D printing is, quite simply, its ability to produce end-use parts. While FDM 3D printing is useful for rapid prototyping and education, only metal 3D printers have the power to create high-value, high-performance end-use parts for a wide range of industries. Aerospace and biomedical are two of the most important industries in that group, with metal 3D printers already in widespread use for the manufacture of aircraft parts and medical implants.

3D printed medical implants made by Arcam

Anyone who keeps tabs on the 3D printing industry will have heard the loud public pronouncements from GE Aviation regarding their now-famous 3D printed fuel nozzles, of which 100,000 will be printed by 2020. To facilitate this massive additive manufacturing operation, the company is investing $3.5 billion in metal 3D printing as it widens its use of EOS M 280 3D printers. But while some metal 3D printers are being used to build aircraft, others are being used to (re)build people: the biomedical industry is rapidly adopting additive manufacturing as a means of creating customized, high-quality medical implants. Arcam, for example, has used 3D printers to manufacture over 50,000 orthopedic implants. The titanium alloys used in both the aerospace and biomedical industries have a market share of 31% by volume.

As well as keeping planes in the air and straightening spines, SLM (selective laser melting) 3D printers are also being used for more obscure and non-technical purposes—in the jewelry sector, for example. Many jewelers have adopted additive manufacturing technology to create bespoke designs for customers, with one-off designs made easy and cost-effective thanks to the on-demand nature of 3D printing. Furthermore, since jewelers tend to be CAD-literate, and since there are no qualifying standards in the jewelry industry, adoption has been fast and simple. Professionals can even apply their existing finishing and polishing skills to 3D printed parts in much the same way as they would with cast parts. The jewelry industry is driving 3D printing in precious metals, with gold powder having a 49% market share by revenue.

Siemens' 3D printed turbine parts

According to the report, other industries to adopt metal 3D printing technology on a mass scale include the dental and power sectors. Argen Digital, a leading supplier of dental alloys, has used additive manufacturing to make coping and bridges with the same properties as cast parts, while Siemens is using the technology to produce 3D printed parts for power station gas turbines. Even NASA has found several uses for metal 3D printing, with the agency intending to print 80-100% of its rocket engines in the future.

The information in the IDTechEx report, the first to focus solely on the metal 3D printing market, was obtained through formal interviews and informal conversations over many years. 29 companies in the industry (including ten printer manufacturers, seven powder suppliers, and ten end-users) were profiled and benchmarked.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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De Moraes wrote at 12/8/2016 3:45:46 AM:

No contact with oxygen at all. The machines nowadays work with vacuum or inert gases environments.

Neil Burns, Croft AM @croft_am wrote at 8/5/2016 6:17:54 PM:

The article makes many interesting points, however, I would question the small sample size of the research. The 29 respondents would not nearly be enough to give a complete view of what’s going on in the industry. Over half of these were either machine or powder vendors, possibly suggesting that their views are over-represented. It will be the end user customers of additive manufactured components and the companies providing these services to them that will shape how the market looks over the next few years. The engineering and design sectors present the biggest opportunities for the industry to grow. The challenge is for the people working in these sectors to change their mindset and appreciate the advantages that AM can offer them. It’s not just another method of creating the components that they have already designed, but rather that 3D printing opens up a whole new range of possibilities that traditional manufacturing techniques simply could not produce. Yes, the machine and materials providers do have a role to play, but it is companies manufacturing these components that will be crucial in helping end user customers realise the full potential that the technology offers. Only when this value is demonstrated can AM and 3D printing become a healthy and sustainable industry beyond the hype, at the forefront of the next era of engineering.

J.G. wrote at 8/5/2016 4:08:16 PM:

something which is not really clear to me concerning powder printing: the surface-to-volume ratio for powders is very high. How is dealt with oxidation of the powder before it enters the 3D printer? Especially if aluminum is considered: this is a metal that nearly immediately oxidizes. I can not imagine that in the whole process (manufacturing of the powder up to the feeding in the printer) the powder is never in contact with oxygen. Or am i wrong? if so, how is the powder fed in the printer? is oxidation (coming from the powder) one of the big problems in metal printing? it should affect the bounding/fusion strength, no?

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