Metal 3D printing is a burgeoning area at the moment. Many companies are investing in metal 3D printing systems and the market is growing quickly. There are a number of different metal 3D printing technologies out there. In this article we’ll give you an overview of the major technologies and vendors in the space. In this installment we’re looking at Powder Bed Fusion.
Powder Bed Fusion
In Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) a bed of metal powder is sintered together by a laser. A new layer of powder is applied and the process repeats. A more apt name may be powder bed confusion because there are a number of vendors selling essentially the same technology under different names. LaserCusing, Selective Laser Melting, Additive Layer Manufacturing and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are all essentially the same thing. Electron Beam Melting (EBM) is a similar process that uses an electron beam instead of a laser.
Powder Bed Fusion is probably the most mature and well researched metal printing technology. It is being used at scale to produce orthopedics and aerospace parts. It is also being used to make millions of dental bridges and crowns.
Build volumes are limited but this technology is capable of efficiently producing thousands of mechanical parts to spec.
Titanium is the most popular commercial material along with cobalt chromes for dental. There are several titanium grades available as well as tool steels, aluminium, pure titanium and hastelloy, inconel and other superalloys for high temperature applications such as rocket engines.
The vendors in the space are moving from lab based systems to manufacturing systems that have automated powder handling, quality assurance and some post processing on board. Whereas initially a lot of these machines went to universities, now many aerospace customers are driving growth. Compared to other metal 3D printing technologies PBF produces more detailed mechanical parts. PBF parts are being used in satellites, rockets, rocket engines, drones, military aircraft and civilian aircraft. The fact that there are several vendors in the space and a comparatively high installed base at universities means that more research is being done on commercializing and improving PBF than on other technologies. The techge, nology is essentially the only one currently capable of producing high volume mechanical parts for aerospace, automotive, dental and manufacturing applications.
An EOS M 400 Quad laser metal system
EOS is the largest vendor in the space. The German privately held company has a stellar reputation and makes a line up of PBF systems. These systems range from the entry level M 100, the Precious M 80 which can print gold and the quad laser M 400 4.
The company is moving towards higher automation and more quality assurance in their systems to move towards manufacturing.
The insides of an Arcam A1 build chamber.
GE is the second vendor in the space after acquiring Concept Laser and Arcam. Concept Laser machines were mostly used for dental but they also have the largest build volume machine, the X Line 2000R. Their M Line Factory machines are modular units that can be expanded with powder sieving units, dosing and overflow. Generally EOS and SLM Solutions machines are better than the Concept machines but with GE’s considerable resources this will be sure to change.
Arcam has the Q10 Plus for orthopedics and the A2X which was specifically developed to make turbine blades. A huge plus in the Arcam acquisition was that the company had their own powder and manufacturing subsidiary. This should let GE learn and control the process much more quickly because they make the machines as well as powders and can test in production. GE itself wants to acquire thousands of machines to use throughout its businesses. Their impact in industrializing metal 3D printing will be considerable.
Cutaway of the MetalFab1 from Additive Industries.
Additive Industries is a Netherlands based startup that has only sold a few machines. But these highly modular and optimized production machines are shaking up the industry. Designed and developed for manufacturing, the MetalFab1 has been sold to Airbus, GKN and others. By having an integrated modular system capable of doing heat treatment, switching out of build volumes and build storage the MetalFab reduces labor and part cost.
Realizer was traditionally a comparatively small company focused on the jewelry market. They have the first desktop DMLS machine, the SLM 50 and a new powder handling system. Recently one of the largest industrial CNC machinery companies, DMG Mori, has taken a controlling stake in Realizer. This probably gives them access to the powder bed fusion patents and will also see Realizer’s capability increase due to DMG’s considerable knowledge and resources.
Trumpf is a German family owned company that is a world leader in lasers and cutting machines. The company entered the market before in 2000 and now is back with a TruPrint 1000 and a TruPrint 3000. Trumpf also has machines that use Direct Metal Deposition to 3D print large parts. At the moment Trumpf is getting its feet wet but the fact that they can take the long term view coupled with their experience with metals and lasers makes them a capable new entrant.
Through having both DMD and DMLS/PBF technologies in house Trumpf has paths to large structural parts and more fine mechanical parts which could make them an interesting company to partner with.
Only a few years ago SLM Solutions seemed dead in the water from increased competition from EOS and other groups. The company managed to make some engineering and productivity leaps forward however and now is one of the largest metal 3D printing companies. SLM was nearly sold to GE, and fence sitting by customers looking to find out what that would mean for them has hurt them a bit. The SLM 500 multibeam machine with quad lasers is a high quality highly productive device and they were the first to really look at modular larger machines that had higher productivity. Being third is a nice place in some markets but the company can not be comfortable being behind EOS and GE. It is the most obvious acquisition target in the market for an industrial group (Rolls Royce, Airbus, Siemens etc.)
Xact Metal is a new US based start up that is making an entry level PBF machine that costs $120,000. Without much of a track record the company’s offering is not well understood. It is however good that the PBF market is shaken up by new entrants.
Sisma is an Italian industrial machinery company that introduced the MySint100 and now is offering the MySint300. The new system significantly reduces recoating time. This is a boon for print times because powder bed fusion machines spend an inordinate amount of time recoating layers with new material. Sisma and Trumpf produce these machines through a joint venture and there are many similarities between the Sisma machines and Trumpf ones.
3D printing giant 3D Systems has a number of metal printing machines on the market including a ProX DMP 300. The company acquired French company Phenix to get at the technology. Their dental printers were well regarded but there have been issues with the larger machines.
Korean CNC company Sentrol offers PBF metal systems and a hybrid system that combines metal printing with CNC post processing. The machines are quite unknown outside Korea.
Matsuura is a Japanese company that also offers hybrid 3D printers combined with CNC. The company’s Lumex Advance line is specifically aimed at the mold and die making industries. Metal 3D printed parts often need a lot of post processing so the Matsuura idea of combining both in one machine is a logical step that could save companies significant time and labor.
US based start up Aurora Labs makes a $49,995 PBF system. This is a significantly cheaper price point than other vendors in the market. Due to lasers and the use of inert gases (and the danger of catastrophic explosions), metal 3D printers using PBF have traditionally been quite expensive. If Aurora Labs or another company would be able to break through in a price range that is about a sixth of what these systems usually cost then this would be a boon to metal 3D printing.
Renishaw is one of the world leaders in measurement tools. They also make metal 3D printers such as the RenAM 500M. The company has fallen behind SLM and EOS in terms of automation and high productivity but is playing catch up with automated powder sieving and recirculation on the RenAM 500.
Chinese company Farsoon has a Cobalt Chrome and Stainless steel materials for its metal printers. The company has some of the lowest prices of metal powder bed fusion systems but they are rarely seen outside of China.
Xi’an Bright Laser Technologies
Xi’an, or BLT as they wish to be known, is probably the largest Chinese vendor of metal PBF machines. The company has Inconel, aluminiums and titanium grades available for its machines. The company is also an EOS reseller and this gives them access to the latest technological developments from Germany, which of course they’ll never ever transfer to their own machines without the proper permission.
Beijing Long Yuan Automated Fabrication System
This company, usually called AFS or Long Yuan, sells directed energy deposition machines, laser welding equipment and metal powder bed fusion machines. As the other Chinese players, their systems are not well known outside of China. It is also at this stage unclear if the Chinese vendors have patent cover for their systems.