By Dr. Richard Collins, IDTechEx Principal Analyst
Despite a temporary setback owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market for 3D printing of metals is expected to see a significant rise over the next decade. Within that, it is anticipated that most of the revenue will be attributed to material sales. The relevant powders are both gaining supply chain maturity and have a rapidly expanding portfolio; there are many desirable properties yet to be realized that are close to market.
The metal additive manufacturing market will exceed $10bn within the next decade. IDTechEx have released a detailed report, “Metal Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030“, providing technology benchmarking, player analysis, and granular 10-year forecasts.
The forecast for metal powders is significant to this future growth. There are multiple metals that have led the early wave of adoption including titanium, Inconel, and various steels. However, there are many traditional metals and properties missing from the additive manufacturing toolkit.
Low elastic modulus
A highly desirable property for an additive manufacturing powder would be an elastic modulus of under 50 GPa while maintaining a high tensile strength. This is specifically for personalized implants in the medical and dental industry so also requires biocompatibility and osseointegration. This is a logical and attractive market to additive manufacturing players gaining notable attention. TANIOBIS are the most notable company in this field with their AMtrinsic material, they see good potential for their tantalum and niobium-based alloys and are beginning to ramp up production and look towards certification. Global Advanced Metals (GAM) have also been active in the field of tantalum additive manufacturing again citing the medical sector and there have been a few early successful examples demonstrating this potential. Z3DLAB are a young company who are bringing a new approach by producing a modified CP-Ti alloy with an elastic modulus as low as 35GPa under the brand name ZTi-Med.
Electrical and thermal conductivity
Being able to 3D print highly thermally and electrically conductive bulk materials would open opportunities. The most obvious target is copper; many have trialed this and realized it is anything but facile. Very low absorbance of laser energy, rapid heat dissipation, high ductility, and high propensity to oxidation makes it a challenging material. The potential in fields like heat exchangers, induction coils and beyond make it a key target.
There are notable advances facilitating this and making it a key space to watch. They include:
• Laser optimization, with blue and green lasers both being trialed.
• Alternatives to SLM approaches such as using EBM or binding in a metal and going via green part.
• Finding suitable copper rich alloys that can still achieve >85% IACS. GRCop and CuCrZr appearing as the frontrunners.
High-temperature and wear resistance
Refractory metals are the most obvious in this category, of which some Ta and Nb-based alloys were previously outlined. Tungsten-based alloys also show promise as do some of the more exotic high entropy alloys that are progressing from an academic interest to the commercial frontline. Producing suitable spherical powders and the associated printing parameters is not easy for these high melting point alloys, but with good target markets in bespoke tooling, turbines and beyond it is another prime area to gain market penetration over the next decade.
Beyond this, one repeated approach is having metal alloys tuned for and benefiting from the additive manufacturing process. The inclusion of ceramic particles, as demonstrated by Elementum3D, Gamma Alloys, and others, production of nanocrystalline alloys, such as those from Veloxint, or the use of amorphous alloys, most notably by Heraeus, all exemplify this.
Outside of these property progressions, there are other considerations that can help facilitate this market. The powder morphology, cost and density are all essential not to mention the manufacturing process itself to achieve good yields and particle-size distribution. Young players and established players are gaining prominence, but the success will not be quick and patience is required for end-use applications with extensive qualification requirements, but with the AM powder portfolio in its infancy, there is a huge potential.