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Bound Metal Printing As a Competing Metal Additive Technology

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Formnext is over, and as usual it did not disappoint. Although the metal AM industry has been, as a whole, a bit growth challenged over the past several quarters, I believe the formnext show was effective in putting to bed any concerns about the long-term viability of additive manufacturing that may have begun to arise after some soft industry performance. The sheer scope and buy-in from large multinationals, combined with meaningful progress in the areas of automation, post processing solutions, machine productivity, and material development, continue to paint a very exciting picture for the future even as shorter-term speedbumps have continued to present challenges.

One of the most potentially interesting announcements of the show, however, came not in the form of a new machine, printable metal, innovative new software package, or exciting new application (though pretty much all of those things were being announced or demonstrated at the show). Instead, what really should have metal additive stakeholders really interested and planning around, is perhaps the first sign of real head-to-head competitiveness between two increasingly important metal additive technologies in the future.

For the last two years the bound metal printing segment has dominated the limelight with big competitive company entries, investments, and new product announcements.  Despite all of this, bound metal technologies like metal binder jetting significantly lag metal powder bed fusion (and even directed energy systems) in commercial implementation. The promises and dollars behind the metal binder jetting segment, however, have at least stimulated conversations from the powder bed fusion segment concerning where metal binder jetting technologies might have a play and to what degree that might affect the existing status-quo of powder bed fusion based systems. Ultimately, these conversations helped spark SmarTech Analysis’ latest market opportunity analysis related to metal binder jetting and bound metal deposition printing technologies.

A recently announced partnership between high caliber metal AM service provider GKN Additive and “industrial burner” supplier Kueppers Solutions might be the first publicly recognizable sign that the established thinking on how metal binder jetting and powder bed fusion technologies will play together longer term is largely wrong. For most of the last few years, powder bed fusion suppliers have, for the most part, dismissed the market swell of interest in metal binder jetting technologies on the basis that these processes (as they develop) would not be directly competitive with powder bed technologies in terms of applications due to expected significant differences in the achievable mechanical properties of both approaches. After all, one is based on welding, and the other sintering -two very different metallurgical processes. There’s no getting around the fact that, indeed, both processes will produce parts with different mechanical performance profiles.

Total Projected Bound Metal Printing AM Opportunities, by Opportunity Category ($USM), 2014-2029

Bound Metal

Source: Bound Metal Additive Manufacturing Market Outlook – Metal Binder Jetting and Bound Metal Deposition

However, inside the announcement of the GKN/Kueppers partnership to produce burner tips was one tidbit of information that may have been mostly overlooked -the partnership will begin with a ramp up of an additively produced mixing unit in natural gas powered burner systems using laser powder bed fusion, but a next generation version of the part is eventually planned to be produced using metal binder jetting technology. Information from the two companies noted that metal binder jetting was considered an ideal match for this particular application.

It’s worth noting that powder bed fusion has made few major inroads into the industrial front, one of the most significant being gas turbine power generation and engine systems. This is one of the first -if not the first -publicly announced instances of metal binder jetting technology being planned for an application in these systems, for a part that will no doubt be exposed to a harsh operating environment, which is a role almost exclusively (until now) thought of for parts made via powder bed fusion when it comes to AM.

The implications of this, should it actually come to pass, are clear and wide reaching. Perhaps most notably, despite the metallurgical differences between the two processes method of forming parts from a metal powder, metal binder jetting will in fact be utilized for parts of a high-value and possibly critical nature -perhaps not in highly regulated industries like aerospace, but certainly in other areas which may have lower regulations as well as stricter economic constraints. Additionally, those stakeholders in powder bed fusion need to prepare for a future where their businesses may in fact become impacted by the adoption of binder jetting technology.

Most companies we’ve spoken to about this possibility over the last few years have largely dismissed the possibility. Others, such as GE Additive, may have already recognized the future implications, and are developing binder jetting solutions to complement their existing portfolio of powder bed fusion systems. Ultimately, the two technologies will likely become very complimentary, such as the scenario described by the roadmap of the GKN/Keuppers partnership. But when not in a position to benefit from this relationship, companies dedicated to one process or the other may find themselves increasingly competing for similar applications.