Metal 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM), has been described as a technology that will revolutionize manufacturing of metal parts. However, to replace traditional manufacturing processes, the technology needs to be competitive. Several process variants exist within metal 3D printing, these systems diverge in terms of the principle used for building up three-dimensional structures and the raw materials used.
As explored in a previous article, different methods provide solutions for different industries and every system has some advantages and drawbacks. This makes the cost of producing a metal part vary substantially depending on the technique used and the complexity of the object. Nevertheless, in general, it is considered that the main costs of metal 3D printing come from the machine itself, which takes up over 40%, and the raw material, usually taking up more than 25% of the total cost. And in a more moderate way, the expenses for labour (around 15% of total cost), preparation and post-processing also need to be considered .
Metal powder prices
The raw materials used for metal AM are usually in powder form and they can be considered expensive, as they easily exceed 300 €/kg. To understand the cost of these materials we have to take a look at the method used for producing them.
The most common method used is called gas atomisation. It consists of melting the metal before making the molten material pass through a nozzle, where high-velocity air breaks the flow. This creates droplets that rapidly solidify creating the powder . This process is relatively costly since very high temperatures are involved and advanced technology is required.
Furthermore, the AM process, in general, requires very high-quality powder with precise particle size and lack of defects. To meet these requirements, continuous research and innovation are required and this also contributes to the cost of the metal powders used for 3D printing. On the other hand, this cost is likely to decrease in upcoming years as new powder providers enter the market.
Metal 3D printing machines have been available to purchase from several companies for some years. The price for a “traditional” powder bed fusion 3D printing system can easily run over €800,000. However, some companies are starting to offer products at much lower prices. Desktop Metal, a company backed by Google, Ford and BMW, has recently announced a metal 3D printing system for $120,000 that could operate in an office .
The tech giant HP also launched a metal 3D printing system for mass production at a price tag of $400,000. Other companies like Markforged and Digital Metal also recently unveiled new systems, adding even more choices to the consumer. It is clear that the market for metal 3D printing machines is growing, with the rapid advancement of the technology and all these companies involved, the price of metal 3D printing machines is also going to decrease.
Other price factors to consider
Besides the 3D printing process itself, there are many other areas that you might want to consider. A typical metal 3D printing process starts with the design of the product, at this stage, the design is optimized for AM and by using what it’s called “Generative Design”. Specialized software, like Autodesk Generative Design, is used to reach these optimized designs. Considering the time spent doing so and the licensing costs of the software, the cost of the final 3D printed part increases.
Labour and Safety
Since the metal 3D printing systems available today are still not completely autonomous, the cost of labour also needs to be considered. Although this supposes a relatively small cost, it is of vital importance since labour is required for the operation and maintenance of the 3D printing machines.
Additionally, safety measures are required because of the presence of high-power lasers and metallic powder particles, which are harmful when inhaled. However, there are cases like for the metal binder jetting technology where these safety measures are not required, giving this system some advantage compared to other methods.
Post-processing of 3D printed parts
The last step is the post-processing of the 3D printed parts, this comprises cleaning, removal of support structures and/or coating the surface.
Depending on the technology used, this step can vary substantially. For example, in the metal binder jetting process the printed objects need to be heated afterwards in an oven for sintering, making the whole process last a lot longer. In contrast, for the powder bed fusion processes, support structures are often required to anchor your part to the build platform. These support structures need to be removed during post-processing and they also make the parts more expensive due to the use of more material .
Companies using metal 3D printing to revolutionise manufacturing
3D printing in aerospace industry
The aerospace industry was one of the first ones to implement AM in their components. For instance, using EOS laser sintering technology, ArianeGroup produced an injection head for rocket engines simplifying a part with 248 components to just one component, reducing the overall costs by 50% and reducing the construction time from 3 months to less than 65 hours.
Another company in the space industry, Relativity Space, has even more ambitious goals. They are planning to build a completely 3D printed rocket. This company developed the world’s largest metal 3D printing machine and has already managed to produce a 3D printed rocket engine and a fuel tank. Their goal is to create an autonomous rocket factory and launch service, entirely reimagining the way of building a rocket.
3D printing in automotive industry
Metal 3D printing is also starting to be used in the automotive industry. Although we still haven’t seen 3D printed parts for mass production of cars, we are starting to see them in smaller scales such as in race cars. For example, the Renault Sport Formula One Team is using AM for rapid design and fast manufacturing of car parts. Metal 3D printing is a great tool for R&D in a race car that evolves every day. A team of engineering students in the Netherlands, InMotion, is also using 3D printing for producing titanium parts for their electric race car. Using this technology, they can achieve lightweight solutions for parts of the vehicle such as the wishbones (Y-joints) for the suspension.
3D printing in medical industry
Another sector where AM is particularly thriving is the medical sector. In this field, surgeons have developed a metal 3d printed tool for ligament repair with a design impossible to obtain with traditional manufacturing technologies. Doctors are already using this surgical tool and reporting that it is much easier to conduct the procedure. They expect to perform faster operations and repair more knee injuries with a higher success rate. AM is also used to make customized implants that are lightweight, with precise fitting and stable. For example, the company Protolabs used EOS technology to produce a hip implant to reconstruct the hip bone of a patient that had suffered bone cancer.
Metal 3D printing is a technology with the potential to face the challenges of the manufacturing industry, such as globalisation, high competition and a shift towards the buyers’ market. The incredible flexibility and efficiency of this manufacturing process opens new opportunities for innovative, customized and high-quality products. These advantages are already being exploited in multiple businesses, nevertheless, the relatively high costs of the technology still present a barrier.
On the other hand, the AM industry is improving its products on a daily basis, and the costs are coming down rapidly. With all the potential benefits that the technology offers, there is no doubt that economic barriers will be overcome in upcoming years, and AM will gain ground on conventional manufacturing processes.
 M. Simons, “Additive manufacturing—a revolution in progress? Insights from a multiple case study,” Int. J. Adv. Manuf. Technol., vol. 96, no. 1–4, pp. 735–749, Jan. 2018.
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 “5 Easy Ways to Remove Metal Support Structures | Materialise – Innovators you can count on.” [Online]. [Accessed: 22-Oct-2018].
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