In recent years, there has been rapid innovation in the development and processing of structural metals, particularly for high-performance alloys. Lux has covered high-end metals innovation extensively, much of which has been driven by advances in 3D printing, simulation and modeling software, materials informatics, and novel approaches to alloy design, such as high-entropy alloys. As a result, the development, production, and processing of high-performance metals continues to get cheaper as quality improves. Continue reading
Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently released a white paper detailing its planned 3D printer. HP’s “Multi Jet Fusion” system claims a tenfold increase in build speed, improved part quality with controllable properties like color, elasticity and strength, and better “economics” than current offerings. The printer functions by inkjet printing binder into a bed of powdered thermoplastic, though the company claimed this technology could ultimately print metals and ceramics. HP’s accompanying press release said the printers would be available in 2016.
Along with its decision to split into two companies, this move into the 3D printing space would appear geared at turning around the company’s financial fortunes and reversing a declining culture of innovation. However, while others have focused on offering investment advice or lauding the move as primed to radically change manufacturing, a closer reading of the white paper reveals several holes in HP’s performance claims, in several key areas:
- Speed and part precision. HP is not the first to try to improve printer throughput. Technologies like Loughborough University’s High Speed Sintering (HSS) printer have achieved similar tenfold improvement in print speed over selective laser sintering (SLS) printers. However, the tradeoff is part precision, as printed parts require post-processing to achieve the same surface smoothness as SLS parts. HP’s printer will likely also require post-processing to achieve similar results.
- Part properties. HP’s white paper contains a laundry list of impressive properties that the new printer will be able to control: surface roughness, friction, opacity, color, and electrical and thermal conductivity. There is a catch, however: Reading the footnotes reveals that these are just possibilities, and not all have been selected for inclusion in the first generation of printers. At this time, HP has only demonstrated parts with multiple colors. Until more information is revealed, it seems that color printing is the only capability that will make it into the 2016 model printers.
- Economics. Again, reading the footnotes proves to be critical to understanding HP’s claims. HP compares its offerings to SLS printers like those of 3D Systems (client registration required) or EOS (client registration required), that range in price from $200,000 (polyamide printer) to $1.2 million (polyketone printer). Given that it has chosen SLS as its benchmark, HP’s printers could cost into the low hundreds of thousands of dollars and still be considered “economical.” Meanwhile, companies like Z Corp (now owned by 3D Systems) offer printers cheaper than $40,000, which would make HP’s look far less favorable in comparison. What’s more, HP gives no estimate of material or binder costs, a critical input for total cost of ownership.
Despite these significant questions regarding the value proposition of the Multi Jet Fusion, HP’s entry into the 3D printing space remains significant as it is sure to attract attention and catalyze innovation and investment activity industry-wide. The giant company’s vast network and distribution channels could help accelerate growth of the entire space. Additionally, HP’s core technology is amenable to multi-material printing, which if properly developed could significantly expand the possibilities of printed objects.
HP’s statement that it “is inviting creative collaboration in materials for 3D printing” is on the surface encouraging, as it appears to eschew the closed materials business models employed by today’s leading printer companies that thwart 3D printable material development (see the report “How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models” — client registration required). However, HP’s “Frequently Asked Questions” accompaniment reveals that “HP aims to lead the market by developing new 3D print materials, using color, biocompatible, ceramic, metal, and other materials” – implying its invitation of creative collaboration is likely just a euphemism for the shortsighted razor/blade business models already employed by the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS that prioritize next quarter’s profits over innovation and long term growth. HP would be well served focusing on refining its hardware technology and demonstrating concrete improvements on price or performance, and leaving material development to material experts, much like electron beam melting (EBM) pioneer Arcam (client registration required) did to accelerate its commercial traction in aerospace and medical production applications. Until then, HP’s claims of revolutionizing the 3D printing space will remain as flimsy as the paper they are printed on.
3D printing start-up MatterFab recently announced it can deliver metal printing systems of comparable quality to those of established players like EOS (client registration required) at one tenth the price. It plans to complete an initial round of performance tests in the coming months and ship test models to partners early next year. To further dig into these bold claims, we caught up with CEO Matthew Burris, who told us that MatterFab’s printer is a conventional selective laser sintering (SLS) platform with little technical differentiation from current printers; it can currently print on stainless steel. Matt said significant cost reduction is achievable by altering the design of the printer. He referenced the window into the print area as one example; this part was costly so he replaced it with a cheap webcam. In addition to these changes to peripheral systems, Matterfab will use lower-powered lasers, which Matt claimed could produce printed parts of equivalent quality to available systems. He also told us that the company will adopt an open materials model.
MatterFab’s claims of equivalent performance at a vastly lower price are hard to believe, especially considering the maturity of established SLS printer providers (see the report “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” — client registration required). While cutting corners on peripheral systems will save it some money, the main cost of 3D printers is in the lasers, powder handling systems, and mechanics that move the laser and print tray. If MatterFab uses a cheaper, lower powered laser it will have to move more slowly over the metal powder to ensure that it is fully melted. This will in turn slow down build time and cause more widespread heating of the printed part, reducing accuracy and subjecting the part to multiple heating and cooling cycles, likely resulting in decreased part strength. Without a clear technical innovation, it’s uncertain how MatterFab will meet its performance and price goals. Until performance data becomes available, MatterFab’s claims should be regarded with skepticism.
However, this does not mean there is no potential market for the company. The tight controls on printable materials enforced by major industry players like EOS and 3D Systems (client registration required) create opportunity for emerging innovators to develop a wider selection of products and properties (see the report “How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models” — client registration required). For instance, EOS only offers 12 metal print materials, a pittance compared to the thousands of commercially available alloys. This is a boon for MatterFab and its open materials platform. Instead of attempting to beat larger and more mature incumbents on price and quality, MatterFab should focus on customers who wish to print specialty alloys (client registration required) that can’t be printed today. This strategy has proven successful for electron beam melting (EBM) printer producer Arcam (client registration required), which works with clients to evaluate third-party materials for use in its printers.
Doctors in the UK recently used computer-aided design (CAD) software and 3D printed components to reconstruct the face of a motorcycle crash survivor. Dr. Adrian Sugar, a consultant maxillofacial surgeon at Morriston Hospital in Swansea, U.K., where the surgery took place, said, “[W]e produced guides at each stage of the surgical process, not only to cut the bone but to reposition the bones, and then we had custom implants 3D printed.” The surgical team spent months planning the procedure, which included taking scans of the patient’s face, creating a software model of his head, designing scaffolds to be used during the surgery, and the final implants. Dr. Sugar said that the team took extra care to document and design a repeatable process that would enable much shorter turnaround time for future surgeries. He added, “We’re talking maybe days as opposed to months. The ultimate aim is to undertake planning and be able to use custom-made guides and implants on a routine basis.”
As 3D printing makes a splash across multiple technology areas, one of the most promising could be medical implants and prosthetics. As mentioned in the report “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” (client registration required), companies including Oxford Performance Materials (client registration required) and Arcam (client registration required) have already received U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 510(k) clearance for the use of their 3D printed materials for orthopedic and cranial implants. The ability to customize and quickly redesign 3D printed components has a specific added value for orthopedic implants and prostheses that need to be custom fitted to each patient. To this point, 3D printing has been restricted to passive medical applications. However, the emergence of 3D printing systems like those developed by Optomec (client registration required) that can deposit metal and plastic concurrently could enable the production of customized active implants – e.g. pacemakers, insulin pumps, and neurostimulators. Clients interested in new approaches to medical therapies should consider engaging with players in the 3D printing space that have a proven record of regulatory compliance, while steering clear of companies that claim medical applications with no proven track record.
3D printing has been touted as an enabling platform for applications ranging from personalized medicine to personal drones. However, the specific trajectory it takes – more disruptive than the Internet vs. a passing fad for hobbyists – will depend on conquering commercialization challenges. Aspiring developers will not only need to address technical and commercial challenges, but also create new business models, legal structures, design paradigms, and partnership networks for reality to match the hype.
The 3D printed part market had a $777 million base in 2012, with 3D printed prototype parts in aerospace and automotive applications totaling $315 million and $428 million, respectively, accounting for more than 95% of aggregate sales. By 2025, the market is projected to grow to $8.4 billion, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18%, with transportation prototyping continuing to own a meaningful $4.0 billion although dropping to only 48% overall share as less mature sectors pick up the pace. Specifically, medical markets will soar to $1.9 billion in 2025 from a mere $11 million in 2012. Arcam first received FDA approval for its titanium orthopedic implants (initially knee and hip replacements) in 2011, while OPM only received such approval for PEKK facial and thoracic implants in Q1 2013.
Despite the quality growth in 3D parts revenue, materials developers should go in with eyes wide open as far as revenue and price. 3D printable materials have historically garnered high margins – for instance, stainless steel powder for SLS and EBM printers sells for $120/kg, compared to $10/kg for its bulk analog. The actual amount of material sold to 3D printing applications will grow at a 18% CAGR from 886 tons in 2012 to 9,654 tons in 2025. However, as more materials suppliers enter and prices drop, the total materials market will grow at just an 11% CAGR from $142 million in 2012 to $579 million in 2025. Each of the key materials in today’s 3D printing pipeline will all see price attrition, from a 60% drop in price for titanium powder for aerospace, to stainless steel powder and polycarbonate filament for automotive each experiencing 90% or more in terms of price attrition.
In the longer term, 3D printing has potential to reshape the manufacturing ecosystem, but it will have the most impact in the near term for products that are made in small volumes, require high customization, and are more cost-tolerant. To survive the hype and subsequent fall-out, winners will identify and serve new applications early and often through nimble materials, application development and business models.
To learn more about this topic, join us for the upcoming webinar, “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 11 am EDT
Source: Lux Research report “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges” — client registration required.