AM Building Value: 3D Printing Forecasts Bode Well for Lasers

By Geoff Giordano

While news appears almost daily to highlight the latest novel item that might be capable of being produced with 3D printing, getting a handle on the value of opportunities in industrial additive manufacturing markets can be difficult. But a compelling picture is forming thanks to recent data.

By 2025, 3D printing could be worth $550 billion a year, according to a projection by the McKinsey Global Institute as related by John Dexheimer, president of LightWave Advisors. While the consensus is that additive manufacturing can’t replace subtractive processes, the medical, automotive, aviation and power generation industries are pushing additive manufacturing to its limits to produce patient-specific implants and high-value components in aircraft, cars and gas turbines.

For the laser community, there is tremendous room to grow. For example, Dexheimer points to the 40.5 percent annual growth in the metal materials segment predicted from 2014 to 2020 by Metalworking World Magazine. Applying 30 percent to 40 percent growth to the 2014 sales of EOS and Concept Laser suggests they could sell between 1,930 and 3,200 systems combined in 2020. Assuming two to four lasers in the average system, that translates to somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 lasers consumed just by those two companies. “And competitors will consume more,” Dexheimer noted.

At present, lasers likely figure in much less than half of the additive manufacturing units in use, according to analyst Terry Wohlers, when considering all the fused deposition modeling machines on the market.

The robust growth of fiber lasers has helped fuel additive fervor and productivity, Dexheimer notes. In a third-quarter 2013 investor conference call by IPG, he relates, the giant laser manufacturer noted that “if before 3D printing manufacturers used 100 W lasers, during last quarter we already shipped many lasers with power up to 10 kW for manufacturing of large metal parts.” Furthermore, “we have developed and started to ship in volume powder-cladding systems for turbine blade repair,” IPG said. “The customer is one of the Tier One industry leaders in the world.”

In terms of additive materials, metal and alloys are expected to be the fastest-growing segment. One projection suggests powder metal sales for AM could reach $520 million in 2019, growing to $930 million in 2023. That would be up from $25 million in 2012. The implication, Dexheimer concludes, is $3 billion to $5 billion worth of end parts in 2019. “Metals appear to be a much bigger strategic market opportunity than many have projected,” he says.

Current additive output from major players like BMW and Boeing help make the case for huge growth opportunities in powder-bed or powder-fed production of metal parts. At BMW, more than 100,000 parts a year are being made additively, according to Wolfgang Thiele, who spoke at the seventh Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM®) Workshop; more than 95 percent of those are polymer-based interior and functional parts, he said.

In the aviation world, Boeing has tens of thousands of polymer parts flying, said Wohlers at the 2014 Lasers for Manufacturing Summit, while Airbus claims it will be using hundreds of AM machines to produce parts — many of metal — within five years.

Makers of metal powders understand the cost considerations influencing adoption of additive processes — particularly as fluctuating raw material costs affect powder prices.

“We’re involved in mostly the nickel and stainless materials” says Cindy Freeby, new business development manager for Ametek. “We also make titanium powder, and there’s quite a bit of interest in that. We’re not certified to sell into aerospace because you have to have certain certification, (but we sell into) oil and gas, agriculture (and) automotive.”

Ametek is working on more gas-atomized powders as customers add them to their repertoire. “Years ago we had made a little bit of gas-atomized powder, but we’re fully into the venture now.”

In terms of cost considerations, “most everybody knows titanium is quite expensive,” Freeby says. “It all depends on the alloy and the screen cuts. Usually, medical-grade titanium powders are more expensive because they have to meet certain specifications — and purity is of the utmost importance. It’s a bit prohibitive in some marketplaces to consider titanium — for example, in automotive. I think they would like to use titanium because of the light weight, but how do they justify the cost depending on the component?”

While experts understand additive manufacturing will not replace subtractive methods, recent heated merger and acquisition activity demonstrates increasing awareness of how transformative additive manufacturing could be in terms of saving material and tooling costs.

Exploit opportunities by having a vision and being bold, Dexheimer advises. “Can you find a pocket to create hyper-growth and sustained, long-term 20 percent to 30 percent operating income?” he asks. Go beyond being just another supplier — “that’s not the big part of the value-creation chain. Focus on contributing to transforming customer economics.”