Things are Getting Hot in Metal 3D Printing

*This post was originally published on LinkedIn

As I’ve participated in the digital revolution of manufacturing over the past decade, I’ve come to believe that productivity will be redefined by the “Four A’s:” artificial intelligence, analytics, automation and additive manufacturing.

Among those forces, additive manufacturing -- or 3D Printing -- may be the most disruptive. I saw it first-hand at GE – one of the world’s largest manufacturers -- as the company became a clear leader in this technology. It will change the way products are made and serviced; it will dramatically reduce cycle times and cost; it will redefine design tools and training.

But it is a hard process to engineer, particularly with metals. Success requires the alignment of robotics, mechanical engineering, materials science and software engineering. Only a few startups have a chance of getting this right and only a few big companies have a chance at making an impact. After canvasing the space, I’ve chosen to align with the best.

This week, Desktop Metal -- where I’ve recently joined the board -- is introducing its Studio System+, an advanced metal 3D printing system that delivers high-resolution printing in-house, specifically for rapid prototyping. In addition to all the requirements that metals satisfies, this system prints parts with features smaller than a grain of table salt.

There is a trillion-dollar shift starting now from traditional production processes such as casting, extrusion, stamping, and machining to digital, on-demand manufacturing. The adoption of additive manufacturing is now entering a phase where it is impacting everyproduct life cycle stage from new product development (functional prototyping) to mass production (part production and manufacturing tooling).

For example, during new product development metal parts are often needed given the requirements for strength, heat resistance and corrosion resistance. An engineer must test all of these requirements during the design and prototyping phase, but there is simply no option for in-house, affordable rapid prototyping with metals today. A large auto manufacturer was recently able to redesign a shock piston in the wheel’s shock absorption system in three days and less than $100 of design costs in a process that would have otherwise taken weeks and more than $500. This accelerated the time to market by collapsing the design and materials testing into one step.

Above: Shock Absorption Piston Printed with Desktop Metal’s Studio System

Similarly, metal 3D systems like Desktop Metal’s have the potential to impact mass manufacturing. Previously, metal 3D printing for production quality parts was based on laser powder bed fusion, which has been too expensive and too slow for high-volume production. Desktop Metal’s system will print 50- to–100 times faster than laser-based systems and costs a small fraction per part. The impact in manufacturing is huge - reducing setup time, manufacturing time, equipment need, and tooling costs. 

The vision is that once metal 3D printing is broadly adopted, companies will realize the many benefits of a “flexible factory” — allowing rapid factory turnover, consolidated assembly lines, seamless implementation of evolving product lines, and the ability to print infinite unique part designs with limited impact on production cost.

At the inflection point

This transition will take time and a few big companies will win in this space. But, there will also be hardware startups that become industry leaders. Desktop Metal enables metal printing at a fraction of the cost, making it hugely accessible. Other startups will require strong execution, excellent product management, and the ability to raise capital. From what I have seen, Desktop Metal is out front.