Metal Additive Manufacturing: The Cheaper the Better?

Metal additive manufacturing has seen many trends over recent years including pushing the (build) envelope and deposition rate to higher levels, broadening the materials portfolio, and expanding into new markets. One trend that cannot be overlooked is the number of product launches for low-cost "desktop" variants; the question is will they be successful?

It is well-known for polymer 3D printing that the hobbyist market, which although popular and great for engagement, is not where the value lies. The majority of the market value is and will be based in industrial applications.

Metal additive manufacturing currently services high-value industries, most of the printers sold are powder bed fusion and can cost over $1m with expensive powder feedstocks. The industry is forecast to have a fall resulting from COVID-19 before rising to exceed $10bn within the next decade.

The high price-tag for current metal printers has kept it in the realms of high-value industries such as aerospace and defense and medical. Powder bed fusion processes are gaining traction in other sectors, such as energy, but require time to find the economically viable use-cases. There are a large number of alternative printer processes emerging, including directed energy deposition (DED), metal binder jetting, material jetting, and more.

One recent trend is the release of "desktop" or cheap/affordable metal printers. These are not systems costing around $0.5m and targeting small-to-large part production but rather those that cost $100k or below. These small printers are designed to make this technology more accessible and ideal for research, prototyping, and small replacement parts.

There are numerous players entering this field with different processes. The bound metal approaches of Markforged and Desktop Metal grab most of the headlines, although there are others extruding pellets (rather than filaments) and Rapidia with a "water bound" approach.

Then beyond that, there are players like One Click Metal (a TRUMPF spin-off) making low-cost powder bed fusion machines and the likes of Meltio and InssTek making directed energy deposition units utilizing wire and powder feedstocks, respectively. Some companies have their whole business model around these low-cost printers whereas others have them as more as a secondary side project, the issue comes with the economics.

To make these printers a success, large annual sales volumes are needed which means a far greater adoption than has previously been observed. The follow-on sales from materials will not be as significant and the "simple" designs will result in less servicing, installation, and training fees. The counterpoints are that there will be software services and a replacement market which could be beneficial with a large installed base.

There are also printer limitations that are quick to be overlooked. For bound metal processes, this includes necessary debinding steps (which brings solvent considerations, cost implications, and part thickness limitations) and consolidation in a sintering furnace (bringing impact on size, time, and cost). The same is true for other processes and although they are not deal-breakers (and there are constant innovations progressing this), it does mean they are not the small, cheap, "plug-and-play" printers initially perceived.

Then there is the important question of what the adoption will be like. This is unchartered territory and although the products are at an attractive price point, and there are good early signs, the market potential has many barriers to be truly realized. The competitive landscape is heating up, the complicated legal history between Markforged and Desktop Metal is well documented and given both have significant funding and valuations there is clear confidence in the potential. It should be noted that both players have other offerings that could prove more lucrative in the longer-term.

Key Markets and the Impact of COVID-19

Metal additive manufacturing has been used for prototypes, tooling, replacement parts, and small to large manufacturing. There are multiple sectors in which this emerging technology is gaining significant uptake, including oil & gas, jewelry, and building & construction. By 2030, the three largest verticals are forecast to be aerospace & defense, medical & dental, and automotive, with latter only gaining notable traction at the tail-end of this period.

The growth and adoption have all been in high-value industry verticals and the long-term future looks very optimistic.

However, onset by the COVID-19 global pandemic, the industry will see a significant decline in 2020 with multiple years needed for recovery.

There are potential viewpoints that additive manufacturing has gained prominence during this pandemic, as manufacturers address vulnerabilities in their supply chain and capabilities have been demonstrated in essential circumstances (such as for the need of ventilator parts). Not to mention orders and investments have still been reported globally across 2020. However, this will not account for the impact to internal operations and end-users; aerospace being undeniably the most relevant sector impacted.

The fall will be dictated on the immediate-term by both internal and client operations coming to a standstill and in the short-to-mid-term by the impact on their prospective client base. IDTechEx forecast that material sales will "spring back" faster but printer sales will take longer as players tackle the social and economic fallout.

IDTechEx has released a detailed technical report on "Metal Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030". This report goes into tremendous depth through deep technical knowledge and an extensive number of primary interviews. Granular market forecasts, detailed company profiles, technology benchmarking, and material portfolio assessments are all included within this report.

To purchase the report, click below.


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