Five Thoughts on the State of Metal Additive Manufacturing by Scott Dunham

Metal AM

  • What sectors are showing best opportunities this next year in metal AM?

Demand for metal AM is in a bit of an unsteady period while the global economy and the AM market shake out a bit over the next several quarters. What needs to be understood is that for the longest time, there’s only really been one widely commercially accepted metal additive process (metal powder bed fusion and its variants), and everything beyond that was niche with appeal only to very specific use cases and customers. Now, there three viable technical segments of the market, and this has got companies looking at things differently, which at some level is changing the demand pattern for the industry.

It’s still acceptable to say that metal powder bed fusion is the driving force of the industry today in 2019, so with that in mind, the biggest opportunities are still going to mostly be influenced by this technology group. Aerospace and healthcare are the big traditional areas here. We’re hearing mixed results for the demand pipelines for these technologies in the near term, with some companies reporting their pipelines are either looking more positive than a quarter or two ago, or are at all-time highs, while others are indicating that their pipelines are a bit weaker this year compared to the same time last year. I think the conclusion we can draw from this is that the competitive structure of the industry in powder bed fusion is starting to come into play a bit more and that demand hasn’t increased at the same rate that the number of suppliers with well-positioned technologies has –yet.

If the pipelines are a bit up-and-down, that probably means that the traditional adopters are still a little hesitant on where to go next with additive and how quickly. I would still say aerospace and healthcare will be big market drivers in 2019, but I expect that there may be a bit of a focal shift to oil and gas and industrial components than in the past to supplement sales. While the landscape of oil and gas isn’t exactly bright right now companies are at least now able to see the benefits of metal additive which should drive demand in this sector.

Industrial components, equipment, and products are a broad area and as the awareness and mastery of metal additive technologies filtered down through institutions and corporate R&D labs we’ll start to see more demand from general industry.  I don’t think that 2019 will necessarily be the year that the auto industry really takes off for metal additive because of the more challenging market situation in that industry right now, and the still relative immaturity of new metal binder jetting systems which hold the best long term promise for big integration into auto manufacturing.

  • What headwinds do AM suppliers need to address?

AM suppliers need to start looking at the big picture. I think most companies over the last decade have accepted that their specific metal additive process isn’t the solution for everything. But, what needs to happen now is taking that realization and acceptance to another level, and understanding that metal additive technologies are maturing to a stage where, when taken in aggregate across all the process types that are gaining real steam, metal additive could play perhaps a much bigger role than they might have realized before if customers begin applying each process style where it fits best.

Bound metal deposition solutions from the likes of Markforged and Desktop Metal are making great strides in cost effective prototyping and speeding time to market, all in a package that is fairly accessible.

Metal binder jetting is trending towards being highly productive and scalable for applications that have huge volumes, slightly lower mechanical requirements, and parts made from steels.

Directed energy is continuing to redefine how companies can keep products and systems fielded for longer by being utilized for repair and part augmentation.

And finally, as mastery of metal powder bed fusion continues to increase in the user community, it’s becoming a great candidate for producing low to medium volumes of robust, complex, next generation parts and systems of parts for everything from production to aftermarket and spares especially in high performance materials.

We strongly believe that there is going to be a role for each of these processes to play and customers are going to better understand that. When you piece all the roles together, it’s a huge potential impact. Suppliers should be looking into capitalizing on that big vision and having a tailored solution set for the whole manufacturing chain, not just trying to sell one process to all areas.

  • Which companies do you see as leading, which ones are lagging?

MarkForged and Desktop Metal seem to be flourishing because they’ve brought viable products to market that are bringing some accessibility to metal AM.  They have helped unlock new customer segments who may have found powder bed fusion technology out of reach or not a good fit for their needs/working environment.

GE Additive has only just begun to tap the potential of their group but longer term they are taking a very good approach. Part of that success is related to their decades long experience as a user of their core technologies, and part of it should come from the strategy of building a multi-solution technology portfolio. In the next one to two years they’ll be strong in laser powder bed fusion, electron beam powder bed fusion, and metal binder jetting (if not more solutions).

Companies like EOS who are specialists in one process are going to have to keep pushing the boundaries if they want to survive long term, and here I would say that EOS specifically is at least moving in the right direction. They have an impeccable history of technical innovation and their latest works in Laser Pro Fusion (using many diode lasers) demonstrates that.

Companies that are lagging are those which aren’t positioning themselves for a future where different metal additive processes are going to have clearly understood value propositions within a broader scope of AM implementation. For example, a year ago most in the industry didn’t see much inter-tech competition between bound metal processes and powder bed fusion because of the very different part properties, materials, and economic considerations for each.  However, if you are a company that has historically had success selling powder bed fusion equipment for prototyping applications,  your value proposition is now significantly impacted because there are now other inexpensive and accessible bound metal deposition technologies.  Said technologies can capitalize on unmet demand for cost effective prototyping in metals that powder bed fusion technology was seemed as overpriced.

  • When will a fully integrated solution set be a requirement for any company serious about being a player in metal AM?

Not this year, and not next year, but by 2021 there’s going to be a lot more options and acceptance of metal binder jetting for production and directed energy deposition for repair of high value parts in a serial fashion. Maybe suppliers aren’t too worried about other technologies and processes infringing on their territory, but the opportunity cost of missing out on the new growth these will be a huge mistake. This also goes for having solutions that aren’t focusing only on the ‘factory of the future’ where the potential users are going to have to commit to tens of millions in investment in these factories just to get to a point where the technology is cost effective. What I like most about the compact industrial printer segment being led by bound metal deposition is that it’s opening metal AM to more users –these users are undoubtedly going to want to scale up their use once they’ve had a little time to gain some process expertise and experiment with implementation. They’re going to want to scale up not just in terms of volumes, but to solutions that provide different benefits that span the spectrum of manufacturing innovation that AM can provide.

  • How does AM play into considerations for potential looming economic downturns?  How do vendors message this?

From a historical perspective, we’ve seen how economic downturn can hit the AM industry. 2009 is generally accepted as the only year in the last decade that the industry actually declined. Optimistically, however, there was a pretty quick recovery over the next three years which I think speaks to the real value of the technology. Also, I think we’re in a very different point of the industry today than we were then, when things were still almost entirely driven by rapid prototyping and research. The more global manufacturing companies embrace Industry 4.0 innovation strategies –of which additive manufacturing are at the core –the more insulated AM becomes from economic turmoil, because even as overall manufacturing activity might shrink, additive programs will continue to increase. We see this today in the energy and oil and gas industries which have been challenged for a couple of years, but by all accounts, additive programs remain growing in these areas.

More importantly though, is for companies to understand that the benefits of implementing AM can help them weather economic uncertainty as well. The ability to introduce flexibility into a supply chain can make companies more nimble and able to redirect resources more effectively.

A great example of AM’s ability to withstand economic turmoil long term is what GE power has done with some of its gas turbines. Using additive, they are now offering ‘upgrade packages’ to existing customers that integrate some newly designed components made via additive manufacturing which increase performance and longevity of the system. This is a perfectly sellable solution during economic downturn because customers using these turbines will get greater efficiency and reduce their costs. The role that additive plays in this scenario is that it provides a performance enhancement to the system that isn’t achievable with traditional manufacturing, and it also is positioned as an upgrade to existing equipment so AM can be flexibly applied as the production process as upgrades are ordered.