Is 3D printing of metals about to take off?

25 September, 2019

Miguel Smart
Partner, PwC US

The use of metals for 3D printing (or 3DP, also known as additive manufacturing) has been slow to catch on. Currently, for most applications, metals 3DP is more costly than traditional manufacturing, especially because parts have to be redesigned for the technology. But as the use of 3DP increases, resulting in lower material costs and better printing technology, it is closing the gap with traditional manufacturing methods for many components. The metals share of the market is expected to grow at a faster rate than either plastics or traditional manufacturing. We expect metals 3DP will disrupt many existing manufacturing processes and become a fundamental part of metal products in the digital age.

The numbers for 3DP are compelling. In 2018, the market for all 3DP activity—including machines, powders, and services—was worth US$8.5 billion with the metals share valued at around $2.6 billion. Across aerospace and defense, medical/dental, industrials, and automotive, the total value of parts that could be additively manufactured using currently available and emerging technology is close to $0.5 trillion—about a quarter of the value of everything produced in those industries today. And the tools and techniques are rapidly evolving.

The benefits of 3DP to the supply chain are well-known: shorter time-to-market for new products, improved supply-chain efficiency, on-demand production, lower inventories, less material waste, and the ability to rapidly prototype and redesign. But 3DP also has considerable potential to optimize functional design and leverage materials properties. For example, 3DP can reduce both component weight and number, leading to better systems performance.

So far, companies have used metals 3DP primarily for rapid prototyping and tooling as well as complex, low-volume parts, such as aerospace engines and medical and dental implants. For some of these complex parts the economic business case is not well understood – the value is more in the performance improvement of a part or system. But our analysis indicates that, with today’s technologies and economics, 3DP can compete with traditional manufacturing for simple metal parts with relatively low design costs and higher volumes. At scale, 3DP can cost-efficiently serve high volume market needs and fundamentally transform the supply chain.

While some leading businesses are beginning to see 3DP as a way of rethinking the supply chain, overall change has come slower than initially anticipated. As with any emerging technology, there are barriers to wider adoption: the cost of initial investment, technological maturity, organizational resistance, and unforeseen risks such as data security. In the case of metals 3DP, the cost and limitations of some of the materials has been a disincentive. Most manufacturers are still undecided about how, or even whether, to integrate the technique into their production setups. The decision is a hard one; transition is not simple. It calls for a company-wide strategy that includes instilling an innovation mindset and aligning investment decisions and risk contingency planning in support of the strategy.

To help manufacturing leaders decide about integrating 3DP into their supply chains, we’ve created a list of the most pressing questions to consider, including:

  • What types of parts can be 3D printed? What are the economic benefits?
  • What is 3DP’s impact on our business strategy and operating model?
  • Should the 3DP strategy be centralized or distributed across our business?
  • Who should produce the components/systems (OEMs, Tier 1s, service bureaus)?
  • What is the impact of 3DP on the structure of our supply chain?
  • What are the regulatory considerations and barriers to overcome?
  • What is the best way to get started?

Before moving to 3DP, companies must first understand where they can expect the greatest economic advantage. They can deploy a simple diagnostic tool that helps to identify the types of components that best lend themselves to 3DP. At the same time, manufacturers need to think strategically about how to design the optimal 3DP operating model and identify the business capabilities needed to incorporate a new technology into traditional business models.

As metals 3DP continues to evolve, with material costs decreasing and functionality increasing, manufacturing industries will come to realize the technology as a fundamental and critical part of the value chain. That inevitability will unlock more and more value and fundamentally change how goods are manufactured.

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