by Kevin Ayers
May 2, 2022
What has changed? The answer could be complicated but it is not: price per part.
For some 25 years, we have pushed the applications and fought significant battles for AM to be accepted into mainstream manufacturing. Some victories were won in creating parts with enhanced performance and lightweighting, but we could never get past the most basic business barrier of cost per part.
The costs of metal AM parts - mainly powder bed fusion (PBF) - were just way too high. One part that I have worked with is typical. This part resembled a totem pole, characterised by very difficult to manufacture features. The traditional cost to manufacture was around 89 USD. The additive solution was 2,400 USD. Even with some enhanced performance gains, the customer would not accept the significant price increase. We were at an impasse as an industry in penetrating into mainstream manufacturing because of price per part.
The money and the future of AM is not in the prototype industry valued at 10 billion USD but in the manufacturing market at 21 trillion USD. The highest ROI is in the serial manufacturing of parts. It is accepted that technology always goes where the money is to be found. Things have changed and the 3D printing OEMs are changing their products. The first signs of this were in the 3D sand printing area where costs are going down. This can be seen in the cost of sand and foundry pricing. There are also significant cost savings in quality when using 3D printed sand castings. The machine prices (Capex depreciation make up 65% of the costs) will be cut by a third due to OEMs selling much cheaper machines.
The other main sea change was the coming of the binder jet metal machines which can use PM or MIM materials. Both PM and MIM M are used in manufacturing already and are characterised by their low powder costs. In contrast, PBF powder is expensive even though recently those prices have begun to drop. To be sure, there are still issues in repeatability, ty, dimensional control, post finishing, etc. but significant progress is being made.
The bottom line is that now we can use metal AM parts within the same price range of conventionally made parts. What’s more, we can use the same metal alloys that we are currently using in production - a big problem for metal AM in the past. Some part designs must have certain material properties which were not attainable previously, and changing the design and Production Part Approval Process is very difficult.
This is a much bigger deal now due to recent major supply chain disruptions (i.e., COVID, Suez Canal, trade wars, etc.). Things are exasperated by the fact that t much of production is shipped by freighter to all corners of the world, which makes being agile a much more difficult proposition. position. These supply ply chain disruptions are seen by many as the new normal. At the very least, we can be more agile by using metal AM to supplement production as needed.
Giving companies and their manufacturing leaders more options is always good business. Having some of your manufacturing internally or more local to your operations also gives you additional benefits. And for that, metal AM is now poised to be in the right place and time to be the hero.