Image source: Xact Metal
Today, it is evident that the future of digital manufacturing channels through two leading 3D printing technologies, namely plastic and metal. While plastic additive manufacturing solutions are accessible, easy-to-use, and include deliveries ranging from low-cost systems to fully industrial ones, metal additive manufacturing has higher barriers. Metal has a higher cost of ownership and is more complicated to implement and operate with. Conversely, plastic solutions are more mature than metal and can offer an excellent alternative for producing previously metal parts in traditional techniques.
Before looking to buy a metal 3D printer, it’s essential to first understand what problem you are trying to solve, and which technology could be the right fit for your needs.
The metal 3D printing landscape
While the first patent for metal 3D printing was filed in the early 90s’, until recently, there were just a few 3D companies that offered mature, high-end solutions for industrial use such EOS, 3D Systems, Arcam, and SLM Solutions. Over the years, these companies have delivered hundreds of printers for industrial users in different industries such as aerospace, automotive, aviation, and medical. These users have acquired the knowledge and experience to benefit from metal additive manufacturing as an add-on to their traditional manufacturing methods.
Recently, several new players have entered the market. Most of these are startup companies aiming to resolve the following challenges: printer cost, cost per part, ease-of-use, complete end-to-end workflow, manufacturing speed and variety of materials. The number of companies is increasing, and the innovation they present is inspiring since they truly bring new capabilities that were not possible before. Most of them still have a way to go to bring their products to the maturity required by large manufacturers before considering implementing new technology in their design and manufacturing processes.
What the future holds for metal 3D printing?
3D printing companies that aspire to be a leader in their field need a successful combination of the right team, robust funding, a clear product roadmap, and an understanding of target markets and their challenges in prototyping/manufacturing. Above all, they need a unique technology that has the potential to change the future of 3D printing.
Here are three examples of metal 3D printing companies that have developed interesting technologies aiming to deliver accessibility, ease-of-use, size, and high-quality parts:
Headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania, Xact Metal is one of the leading 3D printing startups developing and selling accessible powder-bed fusion 3D printers. With an entry point of less than $100K, Xact Metal solutions enable small-to-mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as university labs and printing services labs to produce metal parts for R&D purposes, prototyping, tooling, and low volume production.
With a build volume of 127x127x127 mm and an external size of 610x610x1295 mm, the Xact Metal XM200C allows users to print metal parts from different materials such as 316L, superalloys, tooling steel, bronze, aluminum, and titanium.
Among the company’s sales partners are veteran organizations such as LaserLines from the UK, Protech from Sweden, Energy Group from Italy, and others.
Image source: Xact Metal
Silicon-valley based Velo3D was launched only two years ago and takes metal 3D printing the production of large metal parts in a support free process, using different alloys such as nickel, titanium, aluminum and HASTELLOY® X.
Just a few short months ago during the COVID-19 pandemic peak, the company raised 40M$ bringing total funding to 150M$. Furthermore, in July 2020 the company announced its largest order in company history when an existing aerospace customer placed an order worth $20 million. This vote of confidence surly puts Velo3D forward as one of the most promising industrial metal 3D printer manufacturer.
Video by: Velo3D
Located in Vienna, Incus is an interesting startup that developed a unique powder-based metal 3D printing technology. Their printer uses a high-performance light unit that shapes the single layers, that enables to print parts in high resolution down to 25µm in X and Y. This allows the printer to process fine metal powders and to produce parts with superior mechanical properties. Another great advantage of Incus technology is the fact it can process a wider range of metal compared to other laser melting technologies.
Incus technology is a great example of a company that is aiming to offer users the capability to produce small-medium size parts, with fine details and complicated geometries.
Image source: Incus