The toughest challenge yet?
You can make almost anything with a 3D printer. Today, 3D bioprinters can even use organic matter to create skin. Eventually, this could lead to functional organs for human transplants. It seems surprising that 3D printers are capable of producing body parts, but we’ve yet to master metal printing. Due to extensive heating and cooling, the technique often creates uneven, porous products which are prone to breakages, and it’s also notoriously expensive. In order to address these obstacles, the technology needs interest and investment. Fortunately, rising startup Desktop Metal has received just that, gaining $115 million in Series D funding this July. The MIT founded company aims to bring metal 3D printing to the industrial market, and is already backed by industry leaders including BMW. Could this be the beginning of mainstream metal 3D printing?
Steely 3D printing
Printing three dimensional objects with metal isn’t new, but it’s very difficult. This is mainly due to speed, or lack thereof. Desktop Metal, however, states that they can create products 100 times quicker than their competitors. Not only this, but they claim they are 20 times less expensive. The company’s flagship printer, Studio, caters to smaller companies and engineering teams, whilst the up and coming Production system is aimed at industrial scale manufacturing. The printers are loaded with metal cartridges which are printed in layers by a laser. The product is suspended in a polymer which is then burnt away to reveal a solid metal object. According to the company, Production will print 500 cubic inches of metal per hour – this means millions of metal parts per year.
Despite long standing production issues with metal 3D printed objects, the advancements made by Desktop Metal have caught the eye of investors. Unfortunately, whilst the printers are less costly than competitors, they don’t exactly come cheap. The Studio printer costs $120,000, and Production is three times more expensive. Compared to your average 3D printer, that’s expensive. That being said, 3D printers are now on sale for the same price as high end laptops that were also once outside the budgets of the vast majority of people. At the moment, Desktop Metal is clearly catering to influential businesses. But how will the wider adoption of metal 3D printing disrupt manufacturing?
How disruptive is metal 3D printing?
By encouraging cheaper and quicker metal printing, the Studio and Production systems are clearly useful for manufacturing. As there’s no loose metal powder, the printers are safer than current alternatives and create less debris. This means they could become commonplace in environments like offices, or even shop floors. It’s clear that cheaper, faster, safer, and more accurate metal 3D printing is advantageous for production and manufacturing, but what about other industries? Simply put, any business that provides a physical product could benefit from the technology. Aerospace, consumer electronics, construction and automotive are just a handful of behemoth sectors that rely on metals. If metal 3D printers can drive down manufacturing costs and reduce time, companies will be able to develop higher quality products for consumers, improving customer experience and therefore revenue. Positive disruption aside, there are also negative side effects to be aware of. For example, there is a considerable price gap between regular and metal printers, which could widen the gap between SMEs and larger enterprises. Even Desktop Metal’s Production system is far more expensive than its Studio version. Future metal 3D printers will also have to deal with underlying production problems like overheating and porosity.
Metal 3D printing is yet another demonstration of the versatility of additive manufacturing. The technique could streamline production in countless industries, providing an entirely new way to work with alloys that is safe, relatively fast and considerably less expensive than traditional methods. The potential for industrial scale metal printing is huge, especially for manufacturing teams. Even so, mass adoption won’t happen overnight. Desktop Metal may currently offer the most efficient way to carry out metal 3D printing, but their Studio and Production systems are still incredibly pricey. As costs gradually decrease, it’s still worth considering if investment is really worth it. . . but if industry giants like NASA, BMW, Lowe’s and Caterpillar think so, maybe other businesses should too?
Would you or your business consider investing in a metal 3D printer? Will Desktop Metal continue to lead development? Aside from cost, what other barriers are there to the adoption of metal 3D printers? Comment below with your thoughts.