We are bombarded with articles on how additive manufacturing or 3D printing as it is more broadly called, is going to take over the world. No doubt, they can make 3D printed guns, robots, toys, cars, and 3D printers using 3D printing. But is this technology a complement or a threat to the conventional laser processing of materials? Unfortunately this is not a question easily answered, but let’s look at some background on additive manufacturing and see what we need to watch for as the technology develops.
Just explaining what additive manufacturing is can be complex, since there are many types of additive manufacturing, and the technology is nowhere near done evolving. Printers which extrude plastic seem to be the type that most people associate with additive manufacturing, but this technology neither uses lasers, nor competes with lasers used for industrial laser manufacturing. For this we really need to focus on laser sintering technology and its cousin laser metal deposition. Laser sintering uses a powerful laser to melt a powder consisting of metal, plastics, ceramics or even glass, and builds an object a thin layer at a time. Laser metal deposition is a similar technology which can not only build metal objects but also build upon metal objects, coat them with metal and repair metal parts. There are a few other types of additive manufacturing that use a laser as well, for example stereolithography, which can use a UV laser diode to cure and harden a polymer material. Other methods exist to expose the polymer material without a laser, such as using a UV lamp and exposing the polymer using a DLP device.
Lots of companies have jumped in the fray to create additive manufacturing printers, and the subset of those companies that manufacture printers which use laser sintering include: 3D Systems, Concept Laser, e-Manufacturing Solutions (EOS), Materialise, Matsuura, Realizer, Renshaw, RPM Innovations, SLM Solutions, Stratasys, Sodick, and Trumpf, and the list continues to grow.
Revenues from the lasers within these printers continue to grow as well. For 2015 I have estimated the laser revenue for laser sintering printers was $33.3 million. My forecast for this year is $49.9 million or an increase of 50% over 2015. That is pretty incredible growth on not a trivial amount of revenue. Note that this revenue is for only the actual lasers, not for the printers. In 2015, the growth in revenue for sales of metal 3D printers far exceeded the growth rate of the revenue for all 3D printers as a whole.
If you delve a bit deeper to look at what is actually being printed with laser sintering printers, you find a mix of low-volume objects used for aerospace, prototyping, and medical purposes. Few of these uses would likely have used conventional laser subtractive manufacturing had they not been additively manufactured, but a few would have, especially in the medical areas. My rough guess would be maybe 10% or less would have used conventional laser manufacturing had they not have been additively manufactured.
So let’s go back to our original question, is additive manufacturing a threat or complement to conventional laser subtractive manufacturing? To date it hasn’t been much of a threat, but it’s not hard to envision a time when it certainly may be. Why weld pieces together with a laser if you can build them as one big piece? Why cut metal when you can just manufacture the part the correct size to start with? Of course in real life things are not so cut-and-dry. Additive manufacturing saves on material waste, but it also can be painfully slow, and some conventional laser subtractive processes often can’t be easily replaced by additive manufacturing.
The good news is there doesn’t have to be just one winner, and the newest machines from SLM Solutions and Sodick might be giving us a glimpse of just what the future of manufacturing may look like. Both companies make machines that not only can perform laser sintering, but the lasers in these machines can perform conventional laser subtractive tasks as well. The more high-end of these machines contain four lasers so that they may perform multiple tasks simultaneously. For example two lasers might work on subtractive laser tasks while the two others perform additive manufacturing, or all four might be used for additive manufacturing tasks to help speed up things.
While additive manufacturing is definitely shaking-up the world of manufacturing, this completely new type of technology just demonstrates just how versatile lasers in general can be. No matter what type of manufacturing the future holds, it’s pretty clear that lasers will be a part of it.