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Disruptive 3D printing technology for metalworking SMEs

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - 3DMP (Disruptive 3D printing technology for metalworking SMEs)

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2017-02-28

Manufacturers are under constant pressure to lower costs while demonstrating gains in the productivity and efficiency of the production line. This pressure has fueled the emergence of several innovations, such as 3D printing.
3D printing has seen substantial development in the past five years with new devices, new manufacturing methods and new materials (particularly metals) reaching the market. 3D printing is successfully used in many industries (e.g. healthcare, aerospace, etc.) and is poised for massive growth as more manufacturers adopt the technology.
However, 3D printing benefits have so far revolved around higher-value parts, due to the high upfront cost of the metal 3D printers (a typical machine costs over €1M per unit) and the high consumable cost of the printing input (specialized spherical powdered metal). These high equipment (CAPEX) and consumable (OPEX) requirements restrict the use of metal printing outside to high-end manufacturing industries and large metalworking producers.
This means that metalworking SMEs are effectively excluded from the 3D printing market.
Progemec has created a novel printer that could change the industrial landscape, by dramatically increasing SME access to 3D metal printing through lower equipment cost comparable to cost of standard metalworking equipment.
Progemec’s innovation allows metalworking SMEs to transform their standard welders into a dedicated 3D metal printer. This 3D metal printer features a reduced annual services cost and an increased lifespan, outperforming the more expensive high-end machines.
Our ambition is to deliver a series of fast, efficient, safe and affordable 3D metal printers specifically for the SME metalworking market. With this innovation we intend to increase adoption of 3D metal printing in EU and oversee its increased usage for manufacturing of end user products.
The overall project has the following objectives:
• Carry out an extensive feasibility study for our 3D metal printer in the target market and reach the product/market fit (especially highlighting printing speed and accuracy requirements).
• Develop our 3D metal printer further (from its current TRL6 stage), in particular increasing its speed and precision, and finalize it for market introduction.
• Develop sustainable distribution channels (both indirect and direct) for our 3D metal printer and introduce it in our home market and adjacent countries.
▪ Successfully commercialize the first version of 3D metal printer, and use feedback for design of the second version.
• Expand into additional geographical markets and/or design specialized versions to complement existing machining tools and processes.
During the last 5 months, we have been working both on technical and commercial side of the project.
From the technical point of view, we have evaluated and the studied some important improvements, involving the mechanical part of the machine and also the process itself. The most important results we achieved have been the following: 1) the understanding of the possible methods to facilitate the detachment of the printed piece from the plate; 2) the understanding of the main process parameters, affecting the final surface of the printed objects, their accuracy and precision.
Otherwise, from he commercial side, we planned, managed and executed a real and direct market analysis focused on the investigation and validation of the data about segmentation, willingness to pay,needs and specific requirements of the customers. In the detail, we carried out prospect research via detailed surveys for the adaptation of our innovation in the Italian and European market. Targeting highly qualified personnel of target market SMEs, we collected necessary segmentation data and verified the needs of these companies that 3DMP can address, as well as other benefits. In particular, we have discovered the acceptable price ranges for different segments and verified the willingness to pay for 3DMP. We have analyzed several go-to-market approach options and validated with the target segment our distribution approach. We have additionally validated and amended our communication and dissemination strategies and improved and strengthened the presence of our company and its innovative project in some specific and highly focused technical online groups and communities, mainly in Facebook and Linkedin.
Finally, we extended our 3DMP national patent to PCT and we also submitted a proposal to be granted for further R&D activities, aiming the technical development and the optimization of the project, within the framework of a regional call promoting the application of the Key Enabling Technologies.
Our 3D metal printer will allow to reduce waste (and thus material costs), and create complex geometry that is difficult to attain with traditional machining tools, including printing of hollow spaces and overhanging structures. Traditional manufacturing methods like drilling, milling and turning inevitable generate material waste, which is not common for 3D metal printing. 3D printing also removes the need for moulds. Most importantly, our 3D metal printer will allow metalworking SMEs to take orders of small size which are not economically feasible with regular manufacturing methods. Object prototypes will be created more quickly (hours instead of days or weeks using traditional methods) and cheaply (less waste and no need for moulds). This results in a shorter production cycle than with traditional manufacturing methods, which leads to a decrease in overall production costs and a shorter time to market. Our 3D metal printer does not require retooling of machinery to create a customization on a previously created item – only a new uploaded design. Item overproduction will be cut down, and even small order batches feasible (which is prohibitively expensive with current production means).
There are several broad approaches available in traditional manufacturing (machining) of metal objects: subtractive processes (such as milling, turning, grinding, etc.) and joining and forming processes (such as casting, forging, extruding, stamping, bending, welding, soldering, etc.). Many of these processes are now automated with the help of Computerized Numeric Control. Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) of metals employs a different approach: layers of the final object are added on top of each other one by one. There are multiple technologies available on the market, however the best quality results are produced by high-end printers based on selective laser sintering (SLS) or its variations of this technology. SLS metal printers utilize a laser beam that melts fine-grained metal powder into layers of the future object. The final object frequently requires additional baking in the high-temperature oven and post- processing.
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Deposition test
View of the machine and the design
View of operation and structure of the machine