3D printing has certainly come a long way from its peak hype days, with the technology now starting to see a new class of materials being developed and break into more applications. Today, metal 3D printers from the likes of Burlington, Mass.–based company, Desktop Metal, are being seriously considered as another source to produce stainless steel 5G smartphones, high-strength alloy gas-turbine blades, and other complex metal parts.
One sign that metal 3D printing is finally hitting their stride is the fact that two industries – aerospace and medical appliances, are already adopting it. While there are some things that will never be 3D printed, it’s quite remarkable that there is actually quite a substantial amount of major parts that are 3D printed and installed in aeroplanes. In the medical industry, many devices are also 3D printed such has hip cups, prosthetics, and dental appliances.
But the aerospace and medical does occupy a special niche because of their specific requirements in having to be especially strong, durable, and precise. The two industries are subjected to oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Food and Drug Administration respectively, so cutting-edge 3D printers have been adopted, sometimes at a higher cost.
In the an annual 3D printing industry report from Wohlers Associates, it is reported that conventional 3D printers that produce polymer and ceramic parts of an industrial scale costs around SGD $127,572. However, the average selling price of an industrial-size metal 3D printer is around SGD $552,085 which can explain why companies are staying away.
A typical 4G smartphone these days are made of aluminum. But many upcoming 5G phones will only work with minimal interference from the phone’s metal body, because of how signals are transmitted at higher frequency bands. As such, phone companies are looking to make the shift to using stainless steel instead because it is stronger than aluminum, has lesser interference, and allows more room for a larger battery.
The Production System from Desktop Metal is billed as the world’s fastest metal 3D printer and could be competitive with traditional manufacturing, as it can output 12,000 cubic centimeters per hour which are 100 times faster as older, laser-based 3D metal printing techniques. With the demand so great from the consumer electronics market, Desktop Metal made it a priority to offer 316L stainless steel material right from the start.
While major players like BMW and Ford have invested considerably in Desktop Metal, neither has announced plans to use metal 3D printing for their car production lines as yet. A tool company, Milwaukee Tool, has, however, 3D printed a specialty auger drill bit with the Production System that required just four steps, instead of the 20 if done the conventional way.
Even though 3D printing isn’t going to offset traditional manufacturing unlike what many had predicted, it will complement existing manufacturing processes, and the pace of adoption is only going to trend upwards.