3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing
People in the business call it Additive Manufacturing or AM, sometimes 3DP, but rarely 3-D printing. Whatever we call it, AM looks more and more every day like a critical disruptor in some of the most profitable segments of the metals industry. It is a technology, or more accurately a group of them, that could well offer many service centers the opportunity to move from a price-sensitive, arbitrage-based commodity business model into more high-value, high margin, high growth sectors.
AM today is not some far-off, way down the road, manufacturing process that you can afford to ignore. What was an estimated $3 billion or so industry in 2013 became a $4 billion plus industry in 2014 according to most studies. Projections vary widely, but the most conservative show compound annual growth rates for the global industry ranging from 18% to 34% to 2020 and annual revenue from $7 billion to more than $23 billion by that year.
Still, AM remains in its infancy. But it is a very loud, very strong, and unpredictably fast growing baby. Safe to say, that 30% jump in revenue over the last two years is nothing like what we will see in the next 10. Consider: Lockheed, Boeing, NASA, General Electric, Alcoa, Siemens, the Swiss-based robot innovator, ABB, and American software developer Autodesk—to drop a few of the more powerful names involved—are all spending significant amounts of money and effort gearing up their AM operations.
Just as significant, AM is quickly moving from mainly a prototype, proof of concept, manufacturing technology to a producer of finished parts in products being used in the real world. GE is investing $3.5 billion in a plant for EOS M-280 printers—one of today’s leaders in these machines—that will produce 100,000 fuel nozzles by 2020. The company has already announced that only AM has the capacity to make the light-weight, super strong, custom designed nozzles for its next generation of jet engines. In 2014, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab installed parts printed by Stratasys Direct Manufacturing in one of its satellites. Airbus is using printed parts in its new A350 XWB airplane. Alcoa has a $1 billion contract with Boeing to develop and supply printed wing skins and develop additional functional engine parts over the next several years.
At the same time, medical and dental applications are expanding rapidly. Orthopedic implants, and metal substructures for dental bridges are increasingly coming from AM printers. The jewelry industry has been an early adopter because many of its designers are already using CAD software especially for custom, higher end work. Too boring? A Dutch company, MX3D, working with ABB and Autodesk is waiting for approvals to print a 49-foot footbridge across one of the canals in Amsterdam. They’ll do it with robot printers sitting on the structure they create, spitting out the entire bridge as they go. R&D for construction applications is particularly hot. A Swedish company, Skanska, is collaborating with Britain’s Loughborough University to create a robot that can print concrete. In China one company has already used a printer spewing a fast drying concrete and recycled, construction waste paste to build a few houses and a five-story apartment building.
The people who study this industry say the near term opportunities for AM expansion, because of its current cost structure and production limitations, will be in the expensive, high tech areas like aerospace, biomedical and defense. But coming along quickly they also say, watch for growth in automotive, printed electronics, oil and gas, tooling, housewares and sporting goods. Printed materials already include aluminum, stainless steel, cobalt chrome, titanium, nickel alloys, gold, platinum, palladium, silver, copper, bronze and tungsten. No carbon steel. Yet.
But there are a couple of important liberating factors at work in this industry that make the future as unpredictable as it is bright. First, important intellectual property rights for key AM processes (Fused Deposition Modeling and Selective Laser Sintering, if you must have the names) expired in 2012 and 2014, opening the door far wider for their use and experimentation. Second, the software being used for AM is all either publicly available or even open source, meaning it is available to anyone who is interested. And that means we could as likely see new applications emerging from a teen genius in Schenectady as from MIT’s high-powered media lab. So while the barriers to entry for parts producers may be a high at the moment, the barriers to invention are low.
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