Will 3D printing disrupt the metalworking industry?

From subtractive to additive manufacturing, 3D printing helps metalworkers turn a new leaf
22 August 2018

3D printing will have an impact on metalworks, not immediately, but definitely. Source: Shutterstock

Metalworkers are like artists, they carve out a part required for a machine, piece by piece, out of a larger sheet of metal — their canvas. The process they use, known as subtractive manufacturing, is quite labor intensive and time-consuming.

It’s competitor, the emerging technology called 3D printing on the hand, is exactly the opposite and ordinarily only requires three steps.

The first is to produce the metal using conventional smelting and casting processes. The second step is the production of the raw material for the printer, preparing it to suit the needs of the printing cartridge.

The last and final step is to print the metal component by melting the powder or wire to create the desired shape.

As a result, it’s also called additive manufacturing — since you add layer after layer to build the components you need.

Additive manufacturing (AM) has several disruptive benefits compared to conventional technologies.

As anyone can see, 3D printing makes the conventional production process of hot rolling, cold rolling, cutting, bending, welding, and assembling completely obsolete.

In fact, so long as you have a printer and the necessary ‘material’ for the printing cartridge, you’re ready to print.

Further, since 3D printing makes the conventional process of milling, stamping, and otherwise processing large sheets of metal obsolete, it helps manufacturers save a fair bit of money.

3D printers melt only the powder or wire required to build the component’s skeleton and structure, layer after layer. Any excess released by the cartridge during the printing process can be dusted, collected, and reused subsequently.

Also, given the level of scientific detailing and computational accuracy involved, scrap rates for 3D printing are only 1 percent to 3 percent.

Finally, 3D printing is less labor-intensive and makes a much lower impact on the environment. As a result, it is able to eliminate the emissions resulting from traditional manufacturing and transport through the supply chain.

Why hasn’t 3D printing replaced metalworkers already?

Well, according to recent studies, 3D printing still has a long way to go before it can be widely adopted by the metalworking industry.

The technology, over the next 3 to 5 years, is expected to be used to prototype products and for small batch manufacturing, rather than for mass production.

Currently, the main barriers to the adoption of additive manufacturing are the high initial investment, lack of quality standards, and the limited variety of metals available. None of these, however, will be a permanent roadblock.

According to Grand View Research, The global 3D printing metals market is expected to reach US$2.86 billion by 2025. Another study by IDTechEx Research suggests that the value will reach US$12 billion in 2028.

However, the fact is, even though it is expected that 3D printing will replace traditional metalworkers, it’ll only help make the industry more efficient overall — not detract from the business altogether.