Where Is Metal AM Headed? The Process Is Solving Supply Chain Issues

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Metal additive manufacturing started proving its production capabilities during the pandemic.

Metal additive manufacturing (AM) changed significantly during the 18 months of the pandemic. A recent report from SmarTech Analysis, Metal AM Parts Produced 2021, examines the impact of metal 3D printing during COVID-19 and beyond.

SmarTech notes that additive manufacturing was thrust into the spotlight as the pandemic disrupted supply chains. Numerous forms of 3D printing helped multiple industries cope with shortages while the world's economies struggled with supply chain aftershocks. These conditions demonstrated the relevance of digital manufacturing processes during times of disruption and uncertainty.

The report shows the metal additive market undergoing significant evolution. AM solution providers are demonstrating strong investment and renewed vigor as they adapt and develop metal AM technologies.

Some of the findings from the report include:

  • In 2020, the tooling segment saw a significant increase in the volume of parts additively manufactured. Those in tooling production leveraged metal AM to alleviate production stops and delays that resulted from the pandemic
  • Excluding the dental industry where almost all activity halted for a good portion of 2020, end-use part production for metal AM increased throughout 2020.
  •  Metal powder bed fusion technologies have become well developed and adopted. They are expected to continue to serve the majority of production applications through the next several years.
  • SmarTech expects that bound metal printing solutions, especially metal binder jetting, will gain significant customer acceptance for the production of steel, nickel, and titanium components. These solutions will move into a significantly high production role.

Growing Interest During COVID

The report notes that a wide range of 3D printing processes expanded during the pandemic. While digital manufacturing processes were gaining traction before the pandemic, the benefits were magnified in the last 24 months due to disruptions related to labor shortages, shipping and transportation disruptions, and component shortages.

“The main benefits of additive manufacturing could be summed up simply as a combination of flexibility and speed,” Scott Dunham, EVP of research at SmarTech Analysis and the author of the report, told Design News. “Flexibility because additive manufacturing requires less physical labor and can be adapted to new work or jobs relatively quickly. It’s also easier since digital inputs and advanced software do a lot of the traditionally time-consuming work. This also speeds the process. In times of disruption, this is immensely helpful.”

3D Metal Printing Comes of Age

At first, metal AM was concentrated in prototyping done by service companies. “Metal additive manufacturing technologies like laser powder bed fusion were never that amazing as prototyping tools because of the costs involved,” said Dunham. “Only service bureaus were able to leverage the benefits to prototyping because they could amortize the cost of short-run prototypes across multiple jobs in the same machine to help reduce the burden of the machine and material costs.”

In the past few years, AM has caught on as a production process. “Metal additive parts quickly moved beyond prototypes in the last several years. Spare parts and production tooling are a big part of how the technology has moved beyond prototyping,” said Dunham. “Specialized one-off parts, while niche by definition, are also of high value to select industries and have helped those industries understand the benefits and process parameters for metal AM. This expertise is now being leveraged to get into more significant production of a serial – or at least semi-serial – nature.”

AM Machines Are Growing in Sophistication

Machines that were once designed for prototyping and R&D are getting redesigned for production. “The integration of many more industrialized features and technologies within the machines have moved from what were machines designed mostly for research and specialized interests to machines which are more robust, and more importantly more productive,” said Dunham. “The increased productivity is the primary benefit to the end-user, as even though highly productive machines are more expensive than machines from just five years ago. They are capable of producing significantly lower costs per part in the right applications.”

While the cost of machines has not come down, the cost per part is decreasing. “Part cost reductions of 20 to 40 percent are relatively common today versus four or five years ago, at least speaking to powder bed fusion technologies which still dominate the landscape today,” said Dunham.

Machines Keep Evolving

The market for AM machines decreased during the pandemic even as the need for AM-produced parts increased. “There was a relatively brief period of significantly reduced equipment purchases which hit the metal AM segment in 2020,” said Dunham. “For the most part, the losses were then – and continue to be – offset by much-increased interest in digital processes and additive manufacturing, combined with good timing on the release of yet again another wave of technical evolution in the industry's most used machines.”

While the market for AM machines dipped briefly, the interest in AM production continued to grow. “There has been the rush of investment into the metal AM community once again in the form of capital both public and private,” said Dunham. “It takes investment for technologies to grow and overcome the boundaries to realize their potential. The pandemic has been a catalyst in that regard for AM.”

Major Impact on Healthcare

The report reveals the impact of metal 3D printing on the medical industry. “What surprises people in the report is something we have seen in our research for years. That’s the sign of the impact of additive manufacturing on the healthcare markets,” said Dunham. “We’re seeing that in metal and polymer solutions. A lot of the attention for metal AM specifically has been put into industrialized markets because of the long-term potential for production and revenues.”

While AM has gained traction in the medical industry, the volume product is in the industrial sector. “The report demonstrates just how important and relevant the technologies are in biomedical and dental segments still today,” said Dunham. “There aren't a lot of massive end-user activities in healthcare like there is on the industrial side with GE and Siemens. The industrial use of metal AM  is concentrated in relatively small but growing ways that collectively add up to a lot of activity.”

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