A couple of companies have been enjoying a lot of attention in the press recently with some impressive announcements of products that promise to make 3D printing in metal much faster and cheaper, therefore bringing it closer to competitiveness with traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding -at least for short runs. This is particularly relevant for the spare parts business and indeed both seem to be targeting the spare parts markets in their messaging.
The first is Desktop Metal, a start-up that has raised almost US $100 mill. and whose investors include Google Ventures, GE as well BMW and Aramco. While various processes have been developed to 3D print objects out of metal, speed and accessibility have been problematic, in part, because metals have high melting points and are therefore more difficult to shape than plastics. In addition, metal parts also have to go through several high-temperature processes to ensure the expected strength and other mechanical properties. Desktop Metal’s “Production System” (to launch in 2018) is arguably the first 3D printing system designed for mass production. It is based on a novel proprietary process called “Single Pass Jetting” which combines two powder spreaders and one printing unit to spread metal powder and print in a bi-directional single pass (no wasted motion) and a core technology called “microwave enhanced sintering.” In combination this allows parts to be printed much faster than with other 3D printing technologies, 100x times faster according to the company. In addition, and this is very important, the system works with existing (low cost) metal injection molding materials (over 200 compatible alloys), which results in up to 20x lower costs, again according to the company.
A video of how the system operates can be found here
Interestingly, Desktop Metal has produced a cost curve comparing fully costed parts from it’s process with laser powder bed fusion (another metal 3D printing technology) and conventional casting, which shows costs for a pump impeller produced through its process competitive with casting for up to 100,000 units. It is of course not clear what precisely is included in the calculation
The other company is Markforged which was the first to print carbon fiber in 2014 and has now also unveiled a new metal 3D printer called Metal X. The process appears to be similar to Desktop Metal’s, though the products differ in features and price (interestingly, both companies are headquartered in the Boston, MA area) and Markforged is offering fewer alloys at this time.
A very good overview of metal 3D printing technology, specifically of the Desktop Metal system and potential business impact can be found in an article by MIT’s Technology Review titled “The 3D Printer that could finally change Manufacturing”:
But the real competition for Desktop Metal is probably not from the growing number of companies in 3-D printing… And GE’s high-end machines overlap little with Desktop Metal’s market ambitions. Instead, the real competitors for Desktop Metal are more likely to be established metal-processing technologies. Those include automated machining techniques—such as the method used to make the ultra-thin aluminum back casing of iPhones—and a rapidly growing practice called metal injection molding, a common way to mass-produce metal products…. In other words, rather than merely trying to outdo other 3-D printers, Desktop Metal will have the tough task of converting manufacturers away from production methods that are at the heart of their businesses. But the very existence of this large, established market is what makes the prospect so intriguing. Making metal parts, says Fulop (Desktop Metal’s CEO), “is a trillion-dollar industry.” And even if 3-D printing wins only a small portion of it, he adds, it could still represent a multibillion-dollar opportunity.
It could also inspire manufacturers to change their logistics and production strategies. For relatively small quantities of goods, 3-D printing could be cheaper, since it eliminates the costs associated with the tooling, casting, and molds required to churn out most metal and plastic objects. The time and money needed to set all that up is one reason why mass production is often required if a manufacturer is going to make money. Without that incentive to commit to mass-scale production, factories could shift production schedules and be more responsive to demand, moving even closer to just-in-time manufacturing. John Hart, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and cofounder of Desktop Metal, calls it customized mass production. Rather than having large facilities make a huge number of identical parts that have to be shipped across the world and warehoused, manufacturers might maintain scattered factories that make a diverse set of products, ramping up production as needed. “The implications in a decade or two are probably beyond our imagination,” Hart says. “I don’t really think we know what we will do with these technologies.”
But of course, when everybody can be a manufacturer the manufacturing industry will get strongly disrupted. If the technology pans out some investment in manufacturing plant will soon become obsolete and market values will start to decline. Design and engineering will become more separated from manufacturing and manufacturing-on-demand will become much more mainstream. Ostensibly users (customers) could manufacture what they need themselves and tailor product designs very specifically to their needs. Labor input in manufacturing will decline strongly.
Nevertheless service businesses selling spare parts will be disrupted even earlier starting with legacy parts, i.e. those out of current production. Cost of logistics, in a broader sense the most important element in the spare parts cost chain, will be profoundly reduced. Indeed the traditional role of logistics, including as a science and process, will be affected overall. As the spare parts business dematerializes, the key question is how will manufacturers replace foregone spare profits, which still account for the bulk of service profits -and this will not happen by selling copyrighted parts designs. Interesting times ahead and happening faster than anticipated by many.
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