The metal 3D printing industry has seen metal Additive Manufacturing grow, in the last two decades, from a specialised technology reserved for laboratories to a manufacturing tool used for industrial applications. This evolution has seen industrial end-users apply pressure on OEMs and materials producers to make the AM process more efficient, more economical, and easier to access.
Additive Manufacturing has long been held up as an Industry 4.0-enabling technology, yet the full realisation of the digital thread in the metal 3D printing industry is yet to occur. As AM begins to be used more as part of a larger manufacturing operation, it will become increasingly integrated with other manufacturing workflows. Given that both the pre-and post-processing operations for AM are mirrored in standard manufacturing operations, this integration is the natural evolution of AM.
Manufacturing is driven by efficiency and cost, and in this way, we will see AM processes become much more efficient, both in terms of material utilisation, and build speeds, and downstream processes like heat treatment, machining, and part inspection, will be more finely tuned for metal 3D printing industry applications.
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The realisation of a full digital thread will assist with enhanced productivity. Likewise, design for AM will also deliver additional benefits not only to end applications but also to increase productivity through the reduction of support structures and easier post-processing.
In terms of AM modalities, the PBF-LB space is already crowded with many providers. New entrants to the PBF-LB market will need to offer a step-change in AM speed and/or quality to be viable competitors with longevity. Likewise, current providers will need to continually innovate to differentiate. Advanced approaches such as laser beam shaping, enhanced process monitoring, thermal management for multi-laser operation, and process parameter flexibility are just some of the areas that will be advanced in the coming years.
Metal Binder Jetting has started to gain strong market share in the AM market, but is yet to fully deliver on its potential for low-cost, serial-production AM parts. Commercially, the landscape for metal Binder Jetting is still evolving, and knowledge and technical developments are still consolidating.
Steels will be the main alloy used for metal binder jet 3D printing and present the most promising entry into serial production. Specification of feedstock at one end of the Binder Jetting process chain, and furnace debinding and sintering recipes at the other end, are the biggest unknown for Binder Jetting OEMs. As partnerships evolve and customers come online, these issues will be resolved in time.
Larger format metal AM is finding some pace, particularly with wire-based processes that have high deposition rates and none of the associated powder handling concerns. Many of the wire-based processes are based on known metal manufacturing techniques such as welding, brazing and cladding. The material supply chains for these approaches are well established and the alloys are certified, which means that wire-based processes have a somewhat easier path to market than other metal AM processes.
The continuation of commercialisation activities is greatly enhanced and supported by standards development. A strong community exists around standards development now, and AM-specific standards will ensure easier trading in the AM market, making transactions more transparent, and providing reassurance to customers on the quality of additively manufactured goods.
Alongside a focus on efficiency in metal AM, there will also be more accountability to sustainability metrics in AM and manufacturing more generally. The approach is two-fold, firstly, the AM process itself, end-to-end will have to be accounted for more accurately as governments impose carbon reduction targets, and these targets flow down to AM customers. Second is the important role that AM-designed and built parts can play in decarbonising the economy via the use of lighter-weight parts, better materials, and shortened supply chains.
Innovation in materials will also drive adoption as we find new alloys that are more ideally suited for AM processing. Current materials are optimised for conventional manufacturing techniques such as casting, welding and forming. The unique cooling rates and thermal history found in many AM processes mean that other alloy compositions can deliver better properties and therefore better performance.
The overall outlook for the metal 3D printing industry is the same as it is for all advanced manufacturing. Increased efficiency, downward pressures on cost, and ultimately full digitisation of the workflow. For many applications, AM will become increasingly competitive with casting, machining, and metal injection moulding. As the industry progresses, AM will become much less niche, and more an integral part of an overall manufacturing workflow.