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.