In the tech world, 3-D laser printers can’t seem to get any respect. The sleek computer-guided machines are sometimes used to methodically produce a plastic handgun or an auto part that can be had a lot quicker at a Wal-Mart or Carrefour.
But the hype is deceptive and 3-D printers are indeed starting to find a lucrative commercial niche. Not surprisingly, the world’s biggest exporter of machines – Germany – is building an early market lead in what could be one of the defining metal manufacturing processes of the next generation, experts said.
According to Wohlers Associates, a U.S. industry consultant, the market for all types of 3-D printers and products was $3.1 billion last year, and is set to quadruple by 2018. In 3-D metals, Germany has taken the lead with five companies — EOS, Concept Laser, SLM Solutions, Trumpf and ReaLizer – accounting for nearly 70 percent of all metal 3-D printers sold around the world.
At the heart of 3-D printing is a manufacturing process where molten metal is applied in precise, incremental layers guided by a computer. For some products, the method is more efficient and less expensive than the melting and pressing used to manipulate and shape metals into traditional molds and forms.
Moving from the laboratory to the manufacturing floor, 3-D metal printers are now used to make dental implants, jewelry and aerospace parts.
The use of 3-D printing with plastics began in the 1980s, and the technique is commonly used to make prototypes of new cars and buildings, for instance. Printing with metals to manufacture ready-to-use parts or products for industrial use, however, has only taken off in the last decade.
NASA, General Electric, BMW and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are now using metal printers and 3-D printing technology from German firms including SLM Solutions, Concept Laser and EOS.
Sales at these companies have doubled or quadrupled in the past few years.
Of the roughly 190 3-D metal printing machines sold globally in 2012, 69 percent were made by the five German manufacturers, while most of the other machines were made by four other companies in Europe and the United States, a study by Roland Berger, a German consultancy firm, showed last year.
A 3-D metal printer typically costs €450,000 to €800,000 ($500,000 to $1.1 million), the consultancy said. A year later, German 3D metal printer makers were still holding a commanding global market lead in 2013, according to research by Handelsblatt Global Edition.
The German firms EOS, Concept Laser, SLM Solutions and ReaLizer, who made most or all of their revenue in metals, had combined sales of €177.4 million in 2013, comparing with €62 million for three rivals Arcam of Sweden, Phenix Systems, a French firm, and ExOne in the United States. Trumpf, the fifth German maker of 3-D metal printers, declined to disclose its 3-D printing sales.
A British competitor, Renishaw, which specializes in producing measurement and spectroscopy equipment, had sales of 346 million British pounds ($574 million) last year, but the firm declined to say how much of its sales were derived from 3-D printing operations.
Germany’s focus on engineering and on local patents to melt metals using lasers has contributed to a strong metals 3-D sector, said Richard Hague, a professor of innovative manufacturing and head of the 3-D printing research group at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.
“Germany has a strong machine tool industry and it has a strong manufacturing base. All of those things have come together,” Mr. Hague said.
Technology indeed plays a key role in Germany’s economy. The country is known for exporting Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen cars, factory systems to mass produce candy and specialized machinery, including vacuum furnaces and highly precise weighing instruments.
Germany had the fourth-largest economy in the world, but was the world’s biggest exporter of machines in 2012, taking a 15.9 percent market share, ahead of the United States, China and Japan, according to the German VDMA engineering association.
Germany’s manufacturing infrastructure has helped develop the German 3-D printing sector but research, especially at the German applied science research organization Fraunhofer, has most likely been the driving factor, said Tim Caffrey, a consultant at Wohlers, which is based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In an email, Mr. Caffrey said the Fraunhofer Institutes helped develop a highly selective form of laser melting called metal powder-bed fusion, which formed the basis of the technology that is being used by EOS, Concept Laser, SLM Solutions and ReaLizer.
Most of the German company names reflect the importance of laser technology in metals printing. SLM stands for “selective laser melting” and EOS stands for “Electro Optical Systems.”
Important 3-D printing technologies, formally known as additive manufacturing, have been invented in the United States by the firm 3D Systems or at the University of Texas, but laser-based metal printing techniques were optimized in Europe.
Hans Langer, the founder and chief executive of EOS, which is based in Krailling, a town near Munich, said the key interaction between the laser, the powder materials used in the layering process and the resulting product properties themselves, comes from his own company.
According to data which is publicly available, privately-owned EOS, which also sells machines to print plastics and other materials, is the biggest 3-D printing firm in Germany with sales of about €130 million a year.
General Electric could buy up to around 100 3-D printing machines over the next five years to produce metal and non-metal parts.
Wohlers Associates estimates the global 3-D printing market for metal and non-metal products will grow to $12.8 billion in 2018 and $21 billion in 2020 from around $3.1 billion last year, the firm said in a study last month. Non-metal products still account for most of sales but the 3-D metal segment is expected to grow faster than the total market in the next few years.
“This is because of anticipated production applications in the aerospace industry in metal from airframe manufacturers, for example Airbus, and engine manufacturers, for example General Electric Aviation,” Mr. Caffrey of Wohlers Associates said.
General Electric has been experimenting with 3-D printing since 2003 and is building a factory in Auburn, Alabama to print jet engine nozzles, which inject fuel into jet engines, the company said in a video. The printed nozzle will be 25 percent lighter than the conventionally produced ones and reduce fuel usage, GE said.
To print metal parts, the U.S. firm currently has about 20 machines from EOS, 8 from Arcam, 2 from SLM Solutions and one from Concept Laser and 3D Systems’s subsidiary Phenix, Greg Morris, responsible for GE’s strategy and business development of additive technologies, said in an email.
GE could buy up to around 100 machines over the next five years to produce metal and non-metal parts but it was still evaluating which machines would be best, Mr. Morris said.
In the medical industry, 3-D printing is increasingly used for dental implants such as crowns and bridges. One 3-D printer can produce up to 450 customized crowns per day, compared with about 40 by a dental technician, the consultancy Roland Berger said in its report.
The technique is also applied to produce prostheses and customized bone implants.
In jewelry production, 3-D printing is also making inroads. Together with British firm Cookson Precious Metals, EOS has also made possible the printing of gold jewelry, including cufflinks and rings.
In a sign of the growing importance of 3-D metal printing in manufacturing, U.S. 3-D printing firm Stratasys, which only produces non-metal products, is planning to enter the 3-D metal sector in the “foreseeable future,” Andy Middleton, senior vice president and general manager of EMEA at Stratasys, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Mr. Middleton declined to give details about the planned entry but said: “We see metal as a massive opportunity in the future. It’s going to accelerate as a technology.”
In addition, one of the pioneers in the German 3-D printing sector at the turn of the century, German machine tool maker Trumpf announced in May a joint venture with Italian laser specialist and precision machinery maker Sisma to develop a 3-D printer for mass production of metal components.
The move by Trumpf, a 91-year old firm with annual sales of €2.6 billion, will be the latest boost for Germany’s emerging 3-D metals printing sector.
The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org