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Metal 3D Printing’s Biggest Challenge

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An oft repeated sentiment within the 3D printing industry is that today’s printers are exciting, but their capabilities are stunted because of a lack of available materials.

While there is some truth to this perception, simply stating that materials –or lack thereof –are the key barrier to wider adoption of 3D printing isn’t being entirely intellectually honest. A deeper understanding of the driving print processes that power today’s available equipment is required to truly parse the true nature of potential barriers to adoption.

Metal printers, associated with additive manufacturing of end-use parts, are a very exciting growth area for 3D printing. Sales of metal capable systems have quadrupled in the past two years, and the install base for these systems is now growing well into the hundreds. Commercialization of metal printers is putting these systems outside of just research institutions, universities, and service bureaus, and onto the production floor of manufacturing companies.

This is creating an increasingly positive sign for the market for metal print materials, as predicted by recent research from SmarTech Markets. Today, print materials consist nearly entirely of metal powders optimized for use in these machines. A specific morphology and particle size of powder is needed to produce practical results with additive manufacturing systems. As users find new applications for metal components made via additive processes, the value of the market for metal print materials looks more and more impressive.

But this gets us back to exploring the original paradox. Is the quantity of metal print materials available today too little to really bring additive manufacturing to the forefront of manufacturing technology? Are the materials currently offered not advanced enough to meet the needs of potential users?

The answer, interestingly enough, has less to do with the materials themselves, and more to do with manufacturing processes. I would argue that, there are a huge number of existing metal components used today in aircraft, automobiles, and many other areas, that could be reimagined to be better via additive manufacturing. And I believe that top engineers in these fields possess the capability to utilize principles of additive manufacturing to improve these components. And while some of these uses may get shelved quickly due to a disconnect between available materials on, say, a powder bed fusion printer, the majority of these components hit a wall somewhere else.

The thing about additive manufacturing, or any alternate process to fabricate metal components, is that two different fabrication techniques that utilize the same material will produce a component with different properties. Due to the nature of many industries currently investing heavily in metal 3D printing, it is critical to be able to fully understand how components will behave in their intended (usually stressful) environments.
This means that, even if an aerospace engineer understands how to use current AM technology to make a new aircraft engine assembly better, that idea won’t even get considered seriously until that engineer has standards and data to show that the process by which the component will be made can produce results with specific chemical properties and physical characteristics equal to or better than the same part made in the traditional way.

This is where the real barrier currently lies for the market for metal additive manufacturing, and ultimately the materials used. The materials themselves are rarely different from materials used in traditional manufacture. It’s the process that forms components from that material that ultimately determines the usability of the part.
This means that the market for metal additive manufacturing materials is closely tied to the development of metal print technologies. And while the outlook is very positive thus far based on expansion of metal printer sales, the outlook could be astronomically more in the future.

For more information on metal additive manufacturing materials trends and forecasts, please visit SmarTech Markets Publishing latest report page, Additive Manufacturing Opportunities in the Metal Powder Industry.