One broken screw can derail an entire manufacturing process. Run out of spares and you face a crisis if your supplier overseas needs six weeks to deliver new screws. However, if you have a metal 3D printer on-site, creating that one new screw would take mere hours and cost substantially less.
This is the lure of metal 3D printing, attracting manufacturers and businesses with its promise of eliminating their costly and often unpredictable supply chains.
At the recent global trade expo for 3D printers in Frankfurt called Formnext, dozens of metal 3D printers, flanked by samples of what they can produce, drew crowds eager for a solution to their spare part problems.
The buzz at Formnext, however, was not just for the six-figure industrial metal 3D printers from the leaders in the industry, such as 3D Systems
Designed for more than producing spare parts, these entry-level machines for metal 3D printing are touted as a way for companies to quickly and affordably produce metal prototypes without the high cost, high-power lasers, or the hazardous loose metal powder of other 3D printing technologies. Prices range from $6,000 to $25,000, for these smaller 3D printers, which is a stark contrast to the $250,000 on the other end of the metal 3D printer spectrum.
“Our customers want a way to produce metal parts that’s as easy as producing plastic parts,” says Eric Pallarés García, co-founder and CTO of Barcelona-based BCN3D, which recently expanded to New Jersey. “The whole 3D printing industry is chasing metal 3D printing. But the truth is that, nowadays, affordable available solutions, if any, are very scarce.”
BCN3D, which makes desktop 3D printers that print plastic parts, launched its first entry into metal 3D printing with an adaptor kit priced at around $1,000. The kit enables the company’s desktop-size Epsilon printer to also handle metal filament and produce small metal parts. In fact, several of the top brands in desktop 3D printers, including Utlimaker and Makerbot, tested and approved the use of metal filament on their machines in 2021.
Irvine, Calif.-based Raise3D Technologies is among the manufacturers now developing 3D printers specifically for metal filament. The company just launched its first move into metal 3D printing with the Forge 1, complimenting its existing line of plastic 3D printers. In a collaboration with metal filament maker BASF Forward AM, Raise3D developed a printer that’s a fraction of the cost of those that use metal power.
Raise3D’s desktop metal 3D printer becomes available in 2022 along with its two other machines, a debinder and a furnace, which are essential to the process of creating metal parts from metal 3D printing filament.
Another top name in the 3D printing industry, Polish company 3DGence, which has American headquarters in Dallas, also made its metal 3D printing debut at Formnext. Its new Element MP260 metal 3D printer is a compact-sized machine designed to be a prototype option for businesses that do metal injection molding. Printers like the MP260 are designed to churn out multiple metal prototypes a day enabling companies that produce metal parts to more quickly refine their designs and bring products to market faster.
“The number of desktop systems that can print open market metal filaments has increased, and the current key industrial players are experiencing consistent growth despite the economic impact stemming from Covid-19,” says Sebastian Sczasny, 3DGence’s CEO.
That key player in desktop metal 3D printing that all others are chasing is Desktop Metal, the Burlington, Mass.-based 3D printer manufacturer that went public late last year. The company has since acquired two of its larger competitors, ExOne and EnvisionTEC.
Desktop Metal’s smallest metal 3D printer, the Studio System, is popular with engineers looking to create end-use components and functional prototypes in stainless steel, titanium, and copper. The company’s mantra that customers don’t need to be expert metallurgists or machinists to create complex metal parts resonates with a wide swath of professionals.
What the slew of smaller metal 3D printers presented by many at the Formnext expo represents is a growing consumer interest in experimenting with 3D printed metal parts before making the investment in the established industry machines. 3D printer manufacturers anticipate businesses to adopt the technology to explore how it may help ease supply chain headaches, bring metal products to market faster, and near-shore critical part manufacturing.
The easier metal 3D printing becomes, the broader its reach. Metal 3D printing in general has grown significantly across industries in the past decade, but it was a technology lacking an entry level, until now.
Although demand is strong for the large, industrial metal 3D printers that produce aerospace-grade metal components and batches of complex parts for automakers and heavy industry, office-friendly desktop 3D printers for metal may just represent the new sweet spot for the 3D printer industry.