Expert Interview: SmarTech Analysis’ Scott Dunham on the Future of Metal 3D Printing, Service Bureaus and the AM Materials Market [Part Two]
08 May 2019
This is Part 2 of our 2-part interview with Scott Dunham. Check out the first part of our interview here.
Metal 3D printing has been a big talking point in the last few years, with a number of companies entering the ring. How much more growth will the metal 3D printing market continue to see in the future?
When it comes to metal 3D printing, we’ve just scratched the surface, and the hardware definitely is the biggest part of it.
You can draw some interesting conclusions about the market if you look at the size of the hardware, materials, production services and software markets — those are the four areas of value chain SmarTech focuses on. When you look at how those relate to one another on the metal side, you can draw some conclusions about the maturity of the technology.
When hardware investment is the biggest area, that usually means that the technology is still at an early stage.
Companies are interested in purchasing the newest and latest evolution of a machine, or maybe the latest and greatest, like new emerging metal processes, so they can understand what the real capabilities are. They don’t want to miss out and hitch their horse, so to speak, to the wrong technology or the wrong process.
As the industry matures, you would see, of course, much more emphasis on materials, because the utilisation rates of the 3D printers ideally have climbed to support higher volume manufacturing and more regular serial use, not so much the one-off and low-volume production. But I don’t want to put low-volume or one-off parts in the wrong category, because that’s still incredibly valuable for manufacturing.
There’s still huge amounts of opportunity out there for AM. Compare additive technologies to some other traditional technologies, like machining or milling technologies. The latter are also digitally controlled, and therefore all the interest in digital manufacturing could be potentially fulfilled by subtractive technologies as well.
When looking at the number of milling machines sold worldwide, AM systems are barely a blip on the radar compared to the number of mills that are sold. But it’s not to say that those two will always be in competition with each other, because that’s not necessarily the right way to look at things. Look at it as a proxy for growth. There’s just massive amounts of growth left on the metal AM side.
Let’s talk about SmarTech’s recent report on the service bureau market. What role will service bureaus play in the coming years, especially as companies are starting to adopt the technologies in-house? Do you think there should be a shift towards metal 3D printing services?
From a metallurgical perspective, metal 3D printing technologies, in particular powder bed fusion, are very complex — they’re difficult to optimise and get repeatable. That’s why we believe service bureaus need to be able to become an outsourced area of expertise for metal additive manufacturing.
Most of the companies that adopt these metal 3D printing technologies in-house have probably spent at least five years working with the technologies in-house trying to understand them at a very technical level. They have been looking at how they can achieve the best possible performance and repeatability, building up the post-processing requirements.
However, there are many companies that want to use AM but the barrier to entry is quite high. They don’t want to spend all that time and energy, becoming experts themselves in-house. They’d rather have a little bit more of a plug-and-play type of solution.
And even as more companies do bring technologies in-house, they may not bring the whole thing in-house. They may not bring all of the post-processing, certification and qualification in-house. Just because they have a 3D printer doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t need a partner. That’s really what’s going to be important for the next several years.
Ideally, service providers can provide all of that expertise in an outsourced manner and save somebody who’s not a power user of metal additive manufacturing all those years and all that investment, so they can adopt and benefit from the technology faster.
This outsourced expertise is going to be a very important element of the service bureau market, especially on the metal side, for many years to come. It’s not so true on the polymer side of things, but I think it might increasingly be in the future.
There will also be a gradual influx of new users of AM from different industries over time. The aerospace industry might be fairly quick to use service providers less in the manner that I described, because a lot of those companies have invested in the technology to become a power user. But that’s just because they are largely focusing on one process.
However, there’s a lot of different metal processes out there, a couple of which are not very well understood yet, or well-proven and tested. So there’s still an opportunity for service providers to capitalise on that.
We’re seeing an increasing number of non-AM companies starting to enter the market. One of the examples I’m thinking of is Xerox and its acquisition of Vader Systems. Do you think this is a trend that will continue in the future?
That’s an interesting question.
Based on what we know today, personally I’m not too excited about Xerox and their prospects, although admittedly, they really haven’t put a whole lot of information specifics out there.
However, I think this trend will probably continue. Since I first became involved in 2D printing eight years ago, companies like Canon and Epson have been saying that they’ve been developing or had some interest in developing an additive process. Maybe they’re reaching different conclusions now, but eventually, I think there will be much more big companies that try to find a niche.
I don’t think that they’ll all be successful, that’s for sure. But acquisitions will definitely continue. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the biggest companies in the industry today ultimately get folded into much larger companies in the future.
Are there any key insights into the AM materials market that you can share?
One thing that I’m a bit tired of hearing in the industry is this idea that open materials is the answer to every issue that 3D printing currently has. That’s not to say that open materials is a bad thing. But I’m tired of seeing it pitched as the ultimate problem that the 3D printing industry has.
If it were that simple as just giving your customers access to the parameters of the printer so that they can develop materials on their own, we wouldn’t have an issue anymore. Furthermore, there are business considerations that everybody likes to talk about that you want to make money on the materials, and therefore, some companies want to monopolise the material space.
In actuality, an open materials concept involves your customers taking on all of the costs, or most of the costs, of playing with the machine parameters and then developing materials that are optimised for specific sets of parameters.
Ultimately, if you have a really good application in mind and you want to develop a material specifically for that application, that’s the route you would take. That’s a long process, and it’s very expensive.
The alternative, or the opposite end of that spectrum, is when you just want to integrate additive manufacturing because you already know it would benefit your specific use case. There’s a material that is available today from any number of AM providers and you just want to use that material and you want to get the most repeatable best results as quick as possible.
In this case, you would use a machine that has a prequalified material that suits your needs. It means that the machine manufacturer has taken the time to develop and define the process parameters, the evolution and sets of materials that fit that profile for their machine, so that the customer gets the best, hands-off experience as possible.
Open materials are not the key because across all the technologies, there’s a fairly limited scope of materials that you can print with today. And if it were just as simple as throwing a material in a printer and pressing a print button if you opened up the parameters, then everybody would have done it by now.
Also, I keep seeing that the scope of materials in 3D printing is the major barrier to its adoption. At the end of the day, it’s actually the 3D printers that define what sets of materials can be used in that machine because the printers determine the things like the operating temperature, the distribution of material and other parameters.
Not every material is going to work in every printer. So it’s actually hardware which is the most important area of development, not necessarily the materials in a vacuum. It has to work in concert with one another, but the hardware is what sets the parameters allowing the material to be processed.
What are your thoughts on the role of software in 3D printing?
Software is especially important. It almost goes unspoken, but for a long time software has been one of the biggest pain points in the industry.
The industry coming from the rapid prototyping heritage where software is much less important in that use case. When your requirements for the properties of a part are low, then the actual use case requirements of the printing systems themselves, from an integration standpoint, are also low. So it makes sense that software was always this neglected and confusing workflow.
As the industry is moving towards manufacturing, the software is now rightfully taking a big portion of the spotlight.
There are two areas that the software needs to solve or help solve. One is the need for more automated 3D printing solutions. It’s not just about integrating robotics into 3D printers with physical automation. Software automation will be a big part of it as well.
Generative design software is going to be hugely important in the industry. The reason for this is that design for additive manufacturing is challenging. It’s not something that a lot of people are really well trained in, although that’s changing. Generative design technology enables designs that are mimicking nature and humans are not so great at doing that.
Simulation and in situ process monitoring software is also a big piece of the puzzle. When you combine all those things, you have a generated design and simulation on the front end and in situ elements for process monitoring during the printing, you get a great quality assurance package. Quality assurance is what a lot of industries want for additive to be able to accelerate and simplify part certification process.
If we can help to figure out that, like we can with machining and other processes, that will be a huge step forward.
Workflow software can’t be understated as well. Additive manufacturing has a lengthy and complex workflow, so automating different areas, from end to end, will be really important.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next five years?
One thing that we’ll see is the next era of major competitive change, whether that’s going to be mergers and acquisitions of significant companies, or whether that’s going to be a more serious competitive situation.
There are many companies out there that have established a decent enough stake in the industry to try to keep going at this point. But they won’t be able to stay on the cutting edge with what the industry is going to require in the future. That prediction is drawn from my recent focus on the dental industry, but it’s I think it’s true across other areas.
This is especially relevant for the metal 3D printing market where there’s historically been a lot of cooperation and a general feeling that the market interest is ‘big enough’ to accommodate all the players. I think in the next couple of years we will see a lot more competitive chaos resulting from a fairly crowded field.
Not every company that has jumped in over the last several years of growth boom will be on the cutting edge of things like machine automation and quality assurance, productivity increases and ability to provide training and consultative services at a level which the industry requires. Some of this will be driven by new technical offerings coming into play that will squeeze the existing technologies as well.
My second prediction is that machine specialisation will increase. We’ll increasingly see companies develop machines designed for a more specialised purpose – printing of specific materials which require more unique processing parameters, or machine architectures/print processes that are developed around a specific set of applications.
An example of this is that EOS currently has a small division internally for the offering of customised systems to specific clients, and they plan to develop this into a broader offering in the future.
I don’t think this will come to dominate the industry, and there won’t be any more flexible solutions like what we mostly have today. But I think this trend will continue to grow stronger down the road.
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