The Major Problems with Metal 3D Printing

Recently, and for good reason, metal 3D printing has captured the attention of the industry and public. Although I think both industry and public are unaware of what the major problems/challenges are with metal 3D printing.

  • Cost  of metal 3D printing is prevent adoption. Both the amortization schedule is too long and the per part cost is too high. I believe aerospace and medical are both leading in metal 3D printing because both of the capital costs are per part costs are not primary concerns.
  • Unknown Reliability the thermal history of a part is largely not understood. I’ve talked with researchers who are developing simulations for this exact issue but, realistically, it is largely unknown how the varied thermal history of a single part will impact the reliability of the end part.
  • Perception of Quality Many people will say that the surface finish of metal 3D printed part is a problem. However, this is a non sequitur because the argument is not a binary between 1) Use only 3D printing 2) Do not use 3D printing. Rather, a 3D printed metal part can be finished on the very machines that it is replacing. What I think the public and industry really are concerned about is the perception of quality, parts that have a mirror smooth finish just feel like they should be more well made. This is a marketing challenge rather than a technical challenge because real questions about part quality, such as crystallization and residual stress are almost never discussed.
  • Supply Chain for metal 3D printing is pitiful. If you wanted to go out and buy a metal 3D printer today you would have only one or two local vendors to pick from, in Japan this typically means doing business with a crumbling megalithic company that probably started by innovating the paper industry.  You wont really get a clear answer about long term running costs or technological roadmap which makes the amortization process that much more painful.

When I list all of these in this fashion, I think the critical problem to solve is cost, as it seems to solve the other challenges naturally. If that is true, later this year we could expect to see big adoption of metal 3d printing as costs come down. Seemingly we are on the verge of a metal 3D printing renaissance.

Metal 3D Printing in Japanese Businesses

Metal 3D Printing is becoming a hot topic this year with a handful of new entrants like Markforged, Desktop Metal, Vader Systems, Auroralabs etc. I wanted to examine two of these today from the perspective of business 3D printing in Japan.

Desktop Metal recently made a big announcement about the launch of their first products. They have a studio version and a production version.  The price of studio printer will probably be around 150k USD, I haven’t seen the price of the production version but my guess is at least double that and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is 500k USD or more. You can read the basics on their website. The interesting topics are questions and topics are this:

  • Self Contained Metal 3D printing system
  • Rods vs. Powder
  • Speed on the Production system

3D Printing’s real strength is in distributed and localized manufacturing economics. Contrary to traditional manufacturing which benefits from large centralized fabrication that everyone calls scale.  If we think about the fundamental reasons these things work it is very simple:  raw resources, expensive logistics, capital depreciation, and cheap labor is less than raw resources, cheap logistics, capital depreciation and expensive labor. There are probably a few dozen more significant factors we could put in this but basically, cheap labor trumps cheap logistics and has for the last few hundred years. 3D printing inverts this equation, cheap logistics will beat cheap labor for manufacturing, and we are just at the start of this curve.  So why is an office/personal/studio metal 3D printer interesting? Because it makes it economically viable to localize your small parts production. If small scale production becomes localized, it will signal the general market that globalism is on its way out, investment, research, and entrepreneurship will start pouring into localizing big manufacturing. This process will take decades but it will be the predominate economic theme of the 21st century, contrary to what everyone thinks.

Going back to the first gen (small d, small m) desktop metal 3d printers; success will largely depend on how well they educate people in the applications/usefulness and how reliable the machines will be. If you look at all the successful companies in this space you will notice that all of them spend a significant amount of time on educating their end users on use cases of the machine. Although they are both synergistic; Nvidia needs great video games more than great video games need Nvidia. Reliability will be the benchmark for 3D printers, not finished quality. This is for two reasons:

  1. Part quality varies so widely from design and post processing, it is hard to create a standard.
  2. People expect anything digital to work as well as modern electronics. If a 3D printer is as reliable as a TV, no one will notice. If it is anything less, businesses will consider it immature. A high and unfair benchmark, nevertheless, the real one.

3D Printing Titanium on Boeing 787

Norsk Titanium recently announced

Norsk Titanium to Deliver the World’s First FAA-Approved, 3D-Printed, Structural Titanium Components to Boeing

Unfortunately there aren’t many technical details available but this does seem to be related to reducing costs of the production costs of the 787 by around 2-3 million USD. The not so salient point here is that both companies have setup of a 3D printing pipeline that can go from concept to production in a year’s time. In Japan, that would be an impossible task. It also means that they can continue to redesign any titanium or metal part on the aircraft and leverage 3D printing to reduce weight or cost. I suspect this type of activity will percolate down to the automotive industry as metal 3D printing becomes more widely understood.




This is also more evidence to the superiority of FFF as a technological path for metal 3D printing because the major hurdle to overcome for scaled adoption of metal 3D printing is economic, not speed or precision. Filament will always be a significantly cheaper medium for metals than powder. This also supports the idea that 3D printed parts don’t have to be perfect from the printer to be useful.  An important point that I believe holds back other large companies from adopting 3D printing successfully. Il meglio è nemico del bene.