The very fact that we decided to dedicate Part 1 of our Formnext 2021 review to polymers, even as Formnext is usually dominated by metal AM companies, is an indication that metal AM suffered more than polymer AM during the past two pandemic-plagued years. The reason is easy to see: until 2019, one segment alone was driving most metal AM investments: aviation. The dramatic hit to the air travel industry slowed down those investments significantly. The segments that are expected to replace aviation as key AM adopters (space & defense, energy, maritime and automotive) are either not large enough or still not quite ready to do so, for different reasons (for example that scalable metal binder jetting solutions are still hard to find or that large-format DED technologies are still largely experimental). That said, metal AM is here to stay, and while the traditional market leaders (EOS, 3D Systems, GE and SLM Solutions) had a limited or no impact on this edition of Formnext in terms of innovation, many younger companies and startups are intensifying their investments, expanding their reach and contributing to evolving the metal AM market overall.
See you at IMTS for metal binder jetting
When HP presented its metal binder jetting technology (at IMTS in 2018), targeting additive mass production in automotive, the company set 2021 as the date for full commercialization of the Metal Jet platform. From that point on, 2021 became the date identified for all segment players to finalize their strategies and introduce their systems. The pandemic set that back one year, with 2022 now identified by HP as the target year for launch. Ramon Pastor, Global Head and General Manager at HP (3D Metals) confirmed to 3dpbm that the full Metal Jet commercial launch is scheduled for late 2022, after next summer. “We now have 20 systems at customers and we have built up significant experience with the entire Metal Jet workflow—Mr. Pastor added—we will continue to support them while planning activities throughout the year in preparation for the launch. We expect Metal Jet to be an even bigger disruptor than MultiJet Fusion for high-value applications, and by that we mean not just high-cost parts, but parts that can benefit significantly in terms of cost-effectiveness via additive mass production.”
The result of this delay is that with several contenders for the metal binder jetting market, there was only one pure metal binder jetting company at Formnext: the past and current market leader ExOne, which is now part of the Desktop Metal group of companies. Even ExOne, as it launched and consolidated its metal AM production business with announcements before and during the show (including Schunk and the Pressburg Mint of Slovakia), chose to highlight the more consolidated metal casting applications via its sand binder jetting business on the show floor. A magnesium part produced via additive casting by French company Ventana was particularly impressive.
ExOne’s new mother company and former competitor, Desktop Metal, did not exhibit at Formnext 2021 directly, although the company did announce a major new acquisition, Meta Additive, during the show. After teasing its new metal binder jet technology with a pre-Formnext video, Ricoh also chose a low profile, bringing just a few aluminum parts to its booth and likely targeting next year for a full display of its new system currently in development. GE chose an even lower profile presence, replacing the usual two-story booth with a smaller, down-to-business, presence.
Bound for success
So metal binder jetting will be coming next year, likely at IMTS, the place where it began (at least for HP). IMTS is also the show that is going to be launching the countdown towards Formnext USA in 2025. While no production binder jetting systems were present on the show floor besides ExOne’s, several startups presented solid advancements in similar—and potentially even more advanced bound-metal/inkjetting production technologies. One of these is Xjet, which seems to be finally ready to commercially launch steel 316 parts production on its unique metal NanoNarticle Jetting (NPJ) system. While the system has been in development for a while, XJet showed us some accurate and intricate high-definition parts at its booth. Another interesting company developing a bound metal technology for production is Tritone, also from Israel like XJet. After introducing its first system in 2019, the company now launched a mid-range machine, the Tritone DIM, targeted at consumer goods and consumer electronics manufacturers, service bureaus, R&D and educational departments.
Besides these industrial systems with big ambitions, the most immediately relevant insight that emerged from the Formnext showfloor is that bound metal material extrusion is a solid, effective, practical and affordable process with manufacturers of good quality standard thermoplastic filament extrusion systems now presenting systems and workflows optimized for metal production, with excellent results. The most interesting seen at Formnext were Raise 3D and BCN 3D. Raise 3D introduced the new Raise3D MetalFuse system, an end-to-end fully integrated in-house ecosystem for metal 3D printing, while BCN 3D presented the new Metal Pack for its line of Epsilon Series 3D printers. The sintering experts at Xerion are another relevant player in this area (however its technology has already been on the market since 2019 and has not yet gained significant adoption or visibility).
All these machines use BASF Ultrafuse Metal Filaments from Forward AM (BASF 3D printing materials brand) and the plastic giant, the first third-party supplier of bound metal filament materials, could emerge as the biggest winner of this new market development. Among the pioneers of bound metal extrusion technology, the presence of new competitors may not be a major issue for Desktop Metal, as the company always considered its bound metal printing technology as transitional and complementary to its production metal binder jetting aspirations. Markforged, on the other hand, may come up on the losing side, as its metal AM business was expected to become larger than its continuous fiber composites business but has so far obtained a lower recognition than its composites business on the global stage.
Which way is metal PBF going?
It may be strange that we get to PBF this late in our Formnext 2021 review but this technology is now living through a transitional phase that will likely define its future. First of all, no one is doubting that metal PBF will be the metal AM dominant technology for at least a few years to come. Also, the traditional market leaders, EOS, 3D Systems, SLM Solutions, Renishaw and GE (via Concept Laser and Arcam) will remain the leading companies for the foreseeable future even though none of these companies made major announcements nor presented highly disruptive innovations at Formnext. All of them mostly focused on optimizing their current systems architectures and workflows, targeting progressive and gradual advancements in production and throughput. For example, Renishaw introduced two new systems based on the RenAM 500 architecture while 3D Systems expanded its Direct Metal Printing (DMP) portfolio with the launch of the DMP Flex 350 Dual and DMP Factory 350 Dual. Both systems are equipped with two lasers for speedier build times (up to 50% faster) and lower production costs.
The biggest stories from the Formenxt floor, however, came from some of the newer companies, challenging the traditional players for market dominance. They followed very different strategies and come from different parts of the world. The first, from Additive Industries, is totally focused on workflow optimization. The Dutch company is entering a new phase of growth with the new MetalFABG2, which integrates a range of updates that really take Additive Industries’ technology to another level. As the company explains, the new system series has over 150 updates, including optimized gas flow, optimized heat management, updated process parameters, and beam quality measurements. The new series, which offers significantly higher productivity, is available in three versions—Core, Automation, and Continuous Production—in order to meet the varying needs of the company’s customers.
US-based Velo3D takes a diametrically different approach, focusing entirely on optimizing the build process. The company has also expanded its European presence to support its growth efforts in the region, which it now sees as a key market for future growth. The expansion includes the opening of a technical center in Augsburg, Germany, where Velo3D’s Sapphire systems will be assembled and demonstrated, as well as delivering the first end-to-end manufacturing solution to Schoeller-Bleckmann Oilfield (SBO) Technology, a European contract manufacturer specializing in the production of high-value metal parts for the oil and gas industry.
TRUMPF is also emerging as a major player in metal AM, both powder bed and powder fed. While TRUMPF can hardly be described as a new player in metal AM, the company re-entered the market only in recent years and has since been very active in building its market, emerging as both one of the most serious and innovative companies. At Formnext TRUMPF focused on making its technology more reliable and accessible with several announcements in the area of software and sensors innovation.
Finally, EPlus3D is rapidly emerging as the most serious Chinese company set to build its presence in the European market. The company established a European presence near Stuttgart, strategically located near the Mercedes Benz HQ and the European HQ of its former partner SHINING3D. In spite of travel limitations, the Eplus3D team was present on the Formnext show floor to present its full lineup of machines, possibly the largest of any metal PBF hardware company.
Another relevant aspect that should not be underestimated is that, while GE chose a low profile for both its L-PBF and EB-PBF businesses, three new-entry EBM companies emerged with their biggest Formnext presence ever. JEOL, healing from Japan, along with Freemelt (from Sweden) and Wayland Additive from the UK, seems now ready to enter the market and challenge GE’s (Arcam’s) current monopoly. This seems like a much-needed injection of new enthusiasm in the EBM segment, stimulating GE and Arcam to become the leader of a growing market rather than its sole owners.
From powder bed to wire fed
The metal DED — powder and wire fed — segment and, in general, the large format metal AM segment (including metal consolidation technologies) is also experiencing a phase of vibrant growth and innovation, with some market operators looking to take business away from the powder bed segment and others looking to expand AM into new production applications not possible to cover with conventional PBF systems. While companies like TRUMPF and DMG Mori will remain the leaders in this area, some other startups are emerging with lots of ideas and aggressive market development strategies.
In particular, we spoke with Meltio about the company’s ambitious strategy to build factories with hundreds of more affordable (sub €100,000) systems, working with ultra-affordable metal wire to become the leader in metal mass production within a few years. We also had the opportunity to meet with the team at MX3D, one of the most creative and innovative companies in WAAM technology, that recently entered the market with a hardware product, the M1 Robotic metal printer, for the first time on display on the Formnext showfloor. In the consolidation segment, with the current leaders in cold spray AM, Australian companies SPEE3D and Titomic, unable to travel to Germany, we had the opportunity to meet with the team at Impact Innovation, a European company working on cold spray metal AM hardware.
One company, in particular, seems set to capitalize and help to advance the opportunities opened by the growth of metal DED companies: Hexagon. Its Manufacturing Intelligence division looks to build a flexible and open additive manufacturing (AM) ecosystem to help overcome complexities in 3D printing processes and entered into a number of collaborations with metal DED companies, including Sciaky, pro-beam, DM3D, Gefertec and Meltio. The partner’s mutual goal is to support customers in effectively building their product development and manufacturing workflows. In this effort, Hexagon is following in the footsteps of Siemens Digital Industries, which began building a network of AM companies, including several DED companies, a few years ago.
Why metal materials matter
Even as the metal PBF segment reels from slowdown in aviation, the metal AM market, in general, is clearly expanding in terms of the number of operators and throughput capabilities of the systems involved. As material consumption increased, on different size powders and metal wires, metal material companies now stand to finally reap the benefits of their investments. No one more than Sandvik, which is emerging as the European— possibly soon to become the global—leader in metal AM powders, especially for many different types of steel (which are the company’s core business).
No company has been making as many investments in developing AM recently, with Sandvik’s direct involvement in leading metal AM service providers BEAMIT and 3T Additive Manufacturing. At Formenxt we met with Mikael Schuisky, VP and Head of Business Unit Additive Manufacturing, and Pasi Kangas, VP and CTO, Sandvik Additive Manufacturing to discuss the latest developments. While the biggest news is that Sandvik has further expanded its production capabilities with two more atomizers at the UK site, what is most impressive is the breadth of the company’s knowledge in metal powder manufacturing, covering all sizes from PBF, to DED to binder jetting. In fact, while its current focus is firmly on Osprey Super Duplex steels for PBF, Sandvik is readying for binder jetting and is already carrying out binder jetting production (via ExOne systems) on some impressive cemented carbide parts.
Formnext saw the participation of a very large number of metal powder market operators of all sizes, from Carpenter (which was probably the largest until the recent structural reorganization) to Oerlikon (we’ve covered the Swiss company’s latest achievements in great depth in our recent Metal AM eBook with information gathered during the recent AMTC event). Interestingly the main story to emerge from the Oerlikon booth, besides the beautiful Urwahn bike, is relative to the new high-entropy alloy (AlxCrFe2Ni2) which was developed as an alternative to super duplex stainless steels (DSS) and has comparable strength and corrosion resistance properties. Other very interesting materials and products included aluminum experts Equispheres and Tekna and refractory metal experts H.C. Hafner. We also had the opportunity to sit down with Aubert & Duval, another large metal materials company, specializing in nickel superalloys and offering metal powders for all major technologies (PBF, DED and jetting based) under the Pearl Micro brand.
Beyond metals: ceramics
At Formnext the technical ceramic AM market confirmed it remains a niche segment built to target (and face) extreme challenges. that should not come as a surprise, as these materials are used for applications where nothing else works. The segment has a clear leader, Austrian company Lithoz, which is the only company working to truly expand and massify ceramic AM even beyond the most advanced applications. Other leading players such as ExOne and XJet are now more concerned with building their metal businesses, while voxeljet is focused on sand and high-speed polymer 3D printing.
Bound ceramic material extrusion pioneers such as Nanoe and Xerion (and even Tritone) are actively growing their ceramic capabilities, with Nanoe, in particular, expanding its facility to double its production volume in order to keep up with increasing demand for its ceramic and metal 3D printing materials. To this end, the company’s facility will not only include a material production facility but also a demonstration center for clients and a printing farm.
3DCeram, the ceramic AM technological pioneer, featuring some of the most advanced and industrialized ceramic AM systems in the world, continues to focus on building its core industrial network, supported by the Sinto Group in terms of financial security and structural strength. The display of parts and production capabilities of 3DCeram are always impressive.