There seems to be something brewing in 3D metal printing that’s analogous to what happened in thermoplastic 3D printing.
When thermoplastic 3D printing grew widespread in the past few years, a great deal of the activity surrounded the smaller desktop units. These were inexpensive and offered companies and professionals opportunities make rapid prototypes and even some finished products.
But in all that activity an interesting market niche developed: large format 3D printers. These machines used, more or less, the same processes as used by the desktop machines, but took the printing process to a much bigger scale. Companies like BigRep and 3D Platform began marketing machines with 1000mm build axes.
At first, one might have wondered what these giant machines would be used for. But it turned out these companies discovered entirely new markets: there are plenty of companies manufacturing larger items that required prototyping capabilities.
While they might have attempted them with larger commercial 3D printers from traditional vendors, the cost of such machines - and even for 3D print services using them - was far too high to consider. The breakthrough here was a financial one, where BigRep, 3D Platform and others offered a way through.
I now believe the same phenomenon may happen in 3D metal printing.
Yes, there are a number of 3D metal printer companies marketing capable machines, but they are priced quite highly and require considerable expense and effort to operate.
In the past two years we’ve seen a new wave of 3D metal printing options emerge that hope to shake up the high-priced world of 3D metal printing considerably, and this could happen not only on the desktop, but in the large format space as well.
One company that’s in that space is Australia-based Aurora Labs, who are developing a large-format, high-speed 3D metal printer designed to produce huge metal objects in rapid time. Their goal is to produce a machine that can 3D print 300kg objects in a single day! They have a very intriguing business model that hints at the existence of a new, unexplored market for large-scale 3D metal printing.
Now we see that they’ve signed on another partner that apparently shows significant interest in their process: VEEM, another Australian company that focuses on producing marine gyro systems used to stabilize super-yachts. These devices employ high speed flywheels to prevent roll, the side to side movement of a ship, while at the same time allowing movement in the other two axes.
VEEM produces huge gyros, which can be as large as 3m on a side and weigh up to 19t, using sophisticated metal designs. They also produce ship fins and propellers. I presume the idea is that they would use the Aurora Labs system to quickly develop new versions and/or provide far more rapid production of final products.
In their game it’s highly likely these machines are built only when ordered, as there are not that many super-yachts on the globe’s oceans. The process to build these gyros is thus likely quite long and finding a way to produce them more quickly would no doubt be a significant competitive advantage.
Indeed, their agreement with Aurora Labs says:
The non-binding agreement comprises an IPP which involves the opportunity for Aurora to work directly with VEEM for early access to the Company’s technology, the potential for purchase of the Company’s 3D-printing machines and the ability to do R&D on areas that are appropriate for VEEM’s business. The terms are for an initial five years and may be extended by mutual agreement after then.
The “early access” was interesting to me, as that suggests this company believes Aurora Labs’ system to be a competitive advantage.
After watching all this, it seems to me that we might be at a stage where other industries may rather suddenly “turn on” to large scale 3D metal printing in the same way that some adopted large scale thermoplastic 3D printing.