As recently as three years ago, no metal 3D printing systems cost less than $500,000 to implement. Realistically, most metal printers — including purchase, installation, and support — cost north of a million dollars. A high high cost when you’re talking new (and often experimental) technology. Most used selective laser melting (or a close derivative), a process requiring a high-power laser and powder management system. These large, expensive, difficult to maintain machines would sit in a large company’s innovation lab, printing out either prototypes or exploratory designs.
In the last few years, two critical changes have ushered in a divergence in how metal printing is used. First, a number of companies have released more affordable metal printers, ($100k-$200k startup cost) reducing the financial barrier to entry and allowing more companies to invest in the process for a wider variety of applications. Second, companies like GE Additive (by purchasing two metal 3D printer companies) and HP (by developing their own Binder Jetting printer) have experimented and succeeded in implementing additive manufacturing at a larger scale, utilizing investments in the tens or even hundreds of millions to produce end-use parts at production volumes. Don’t forget the myriad of start ups as well as foreign firms. We now have two distinct goals: proliferating metal 3D printers and utilizing metal additive manufacturing for true production.