Evaluation Criteria for Compact Industrial Metal 3D Printers

Metal additive manufacturing continues to be one of the most influential next-generation technologies. While metal 3D printing is a hot topic in the industry, most of the focus has been on large-scale production and throughput rather than accessibility. For those new to metal 3D printing, entering into additive versus subtractive manufacturing can be a daunting task. What does a machine shop need to think about when considering supplementing their CNC machining capabilities with a metal 3D printer? What technology should a service bureau be considering when introducing metal additive manufacturing into their existing polymer printing capabilities? In short, where to begin?

Applicability

If your business involves functional prototypes, low-volume production, product development, long-tail production, or spare part manufacturing of metal components, it’s likely that metal 3D printing is already on your radar. But, aren’t metal 3D printers large and difficult to use? Not entirely.

Accessibility

There is an emerging segment in the metal 3D printing hardware market focused on the needs of entry-level industrial customers. Desktop Metal and Markforged were the first to address this need with their metal “desktop” printers. But, seeing as the overall footprint is really the bigger issue at hand, independent of whether it can sit on your desktop, the term Compact Industrial Metal 3D Printers is a more accurate description. These printers have all been designed for a smaller space, with relatively easy set-up, and a much shorter learning curve. This sound expensive, right? Not comparatively.

Cost

It’s true that the major players in the metal 3D printing market, such as EOSConcept Laser, and SLM Solutions, are all focusing on increasing productivity with larger and more expensive machines, with price tags over US$1 million. However, the Compact Industrial Metal Printer manufacturers recognize that this kind of capital investment is out of the question for many of the new users of this technology and have specifically designed printers at a price point of less than $200,000, and in some cases even less than $100,000. Well then, these printers must have poorer quality or work at a slower speed, right? Not necessarily.

Speed and Quality

Since these printers are designed for the industrial user, the manufacturers of these printers recognize that speed & quality cannot be compromised. Some of the manufacturers, such as Xact Metal, offer two solutions: a cheaper option, and a more expensive option (but still relatively low-cost) that prints at a faster rate. And, both produce high quality parts comparable to some of the higher priced printers.
In short, there are several Compact Industrial Metal 3D Printers to consider when venturing into metal additive manufacturing for the first time. Excitingly, the manufacturers have listened intently and are releasing impressive printers, at a reasonable price point and improved accessibility, while still retaining the speed and quality needed for industrial manufacturing.

Blog by Kristin Mulherin,
Senior Analyst – SmarTech Analysis

Sorting Through the Hype of Compact Industrial Metal Printers

As I put together my upcoming report on compact industrial metal printers, I can’t help but wonder why some of the competitive low-cost options on the market have been completely overshadowed by Desktop Metal and, to some degree, Markforged. Companies such as Aurora LabsOR Laser and Pollen AM have had “desktop-like” metal solutions on the market for years but all three combined have only a fraction of the name recognition. I’m not saying that Desktop Metal and Markforged don’t offer great printers. But some might think they are the only two solutions available for those looking for a compact, industrial, low-cost metal 3D printer. Why is this? Is it just marketing? Or the existence of large corporate backers? Or the ability to get Fortune 100 names on their boards? I suppose it’s all three.

But, where does that leave us, the consumer? How do we sort the hype from reality? What are the evaluation criteria we need to be considering?

At the end of the day, it all comes down to how and why it’s going to be used. Coming out of AMUG last week my opinions were confirmed by much of the content presented and conversations had: 2019 is the year of application-specific development and corporate partnerships. The former is more pertinent here. What I mean by that is that after the hype 3D printing experienced in the early part of this decade, we dropped into what the Gartner Hype Cycle labels the “Trough of Disillusionment”. We are now entering the “Slope of Enlightenment” portion of the curve, and one major driver for this positive course correction is the broad consensus that 3D printer manufacturers are not necessary competitors, but actually allies, all critical to complete the puzzle. There are the ever-critical edges and corner pieces that helped us begin to form the picture, and then a larger number of middle pieces that are more difficult to find and place, but no less critical. Those middle pieces can not and should not be ignored.

So, coming back to distinguishing hype from reality, we need to first ask ourselves what it is that we actually need. This lack of clarity and definition generally drives those wanting to invest in 3D printing to lean towards the solutions with the most ubiquity. In some cases, this is the right decision; not one based on knowledge and facts, but rather luck. There are amazing powder bed fusion (PBF) solutions, innovative material extrusion (ME) solutions, and reinvented Directed Energy Deposition (DED) solutions. So, how do you choose? It’s a matter of defining your needs. PBF printers have great resolution and surface finish, but with more complex material handling and a steep learning curve. ME solutions offer relatively easy user interfaces, but complicated and lengthy sintering steps. And, DED has speed and cost on its side, but an entirely different level of resolution. At the end of the day, no one can say one technology is better than another, as its more a function of the intended use.

Many companies with impressive compact industrial metal printers are taking 2019 to either enter the market or expand on their existing presence. It’ll be very interesting to see which one’s can approach the Goliaths (or Unicorns, in this case) with enough power and substance to make a mark.

Compact Industrial Metal AM Printers Are The True “Desktop” Metal Printers

Let’s talk about industrial ‘desktop’ 3D printers, especially as they pertain to metals. Until recently, the metal ‘desktop’ 3D printing market was relatively non-existent, with ‘desktop’ printers being only suitable for polymers. That is until the eponymous Desktop Metal boldly entered the market by high-jacking the term and using it as their company name. It’s especially interesting now, as this unicorn has begun to wildly swing away from ‘desktop’ solutions by investing very heavily in extremely large and expensive production units. So, where does that leave us?

In 2018, there were two major players in this market, Desktop Metal and Markforged. But, first, we must ask if their Studio and Metal X systems, respectively, are even ‘desktop’ solutions? One could argue that they are not. Yes, the printers themselves are designed to fit nicely on your desktop, but the complete solution requires two other large and unwieldy units that would cause more than just few odd looks if placed on your desk at work.

But, do these printers need to be on your desktop? In all honesty, no. Let’s look at the primary applications within the industrial market. We are not talking about someone sitting at their desk and printing out metal parts like you’d print a contract on a 2D printer. We’re talking about high functioning prototypes, and even functional parts, within an industrial manufacturing environment. So, what we’re really asking for is a complete system within a small footprint, whether or not it can sit on your desk.

As entry-level solutions, they should also be lower-cost, require minimal set-up and, ideally, be “plug & play”. I even toyed with the idea of trying to come up with a new name for the category. The best I could come up with was “CLIMP” for Compact, Low-cost, Industrial, Metal Printers. Not exactly catchy. Although it’s more accurate than ‘desktop’, I can see why ‘desktop’ stuck. So, for the time being, I think I’ll be referring to them as Compact Industrial printers.

Firmly now in 2019, it’s clear people want and need Compact Industrial metal printers. There’s a huge gap in the market between printers designed for the hobbyist and industrialized solutions requiring extensive facilities renovations and seven-figure price tags. Are the big players like EOS and Concept Laser coming out with solutions to meet this demand? Interestingly, no. These companies are focusing on producing larger printers, with a focus on throughput for a productized environment. So, it’s up to the new entrants to address this need. There are several newer companies releasing Compact Industrial AM metal printers this year and it’ll be interesting to see which one’s rise to the top to compete head-to-head with the current ‘desktop’ providers.

For more information on SmarTech’s upcoming report on this subject matter, please see the link below or email rob@smartechpublishing.com.

What is Industry 4.0?

We keep hearing about it. It’s in the media. Your neighbor mentioned it the other day. But, what IS Industry 4.0?

Also known as the “4th Industrial Revolution”, it refers to the exciting era that we are entering in which automation and data exchange are connected to facilitate manufacturing technologies. Also known as Industry 4.0, it connects the cyber and physical worlds. Additive Manufacturing is a major part of this revolution…

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