Suppliers including BHP Billiton Ltd., and Baosteel Group Corp., the owner of China’s biggest publicly traded steelmaker, are backing research into 3-D printing technology, which can produce components faster and cheaper than traditional manufacturing. Demand for specialized metal powders to feed the machines almost tripled over four years through 2013.
The systems “print” objects by laying down thin layers of metal, plastic or ceramic, one atop another, to create a three-dimensional finished product. As the technology improves, larger and faster printers will drive up demand for the raw materials, according to Pablos Holman, a Seattle-based inventor. With key patents for 3-D printing technology expiring this year, he expects the machines to become more common in the manufacturing industry.
“It’s pretty easy to see that you’re going to be able to print a house, and that it’s going to be different and better that what we are making now, the old-fashioned way,” said Holman, who has advised MakerBot Industries LLC, a printer maker acquired last year by Stratasys Ltd. “As far as the mining industry is concerned, somebody is going to get out ahead of it.”
Airbus Group NV used its first printed component in March, a crew seat for an A310 jet, and envisages using the technology for numerous other cabin components. Eventually, entire airliners including the engines may emerge from 3-D printers, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s biggest defense contractor, estimated in May that some complex satellite components can be produced 48 percent cheaper and 43 percent faster with 3-D printing. The process may eventually reduce production costs by as much as 80 percent, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Marillyn Hewson, said in June.
As demand for metal powders increases and producers refine their own manufacturing processes, the cost of components made with 3-D printers may eventually be competitive with traditional finished metal products, said Fred Truong, a Melbourne-based analyst with Bell Potter Securities Ltd.
“The reduction in production costs could enable titanium to compete with certain steel and aluminum products,” said Truong.
The 3-D printing process begins with a computer that converts an image of a three-dimensional object into thin, two-dimensional cross sections. Then the printer gets to work.
An automated roller spreads a layer of metal powder across a platform, and a high-power laser beam fuses or melts the particles together. That creates a single sliver of the final product, and the process repeats, adding one layer after another until it’s complete.
While there’s strong interest in the technology, demand is small and it may take years for it to become widely used in commercial manufacturing.
About $530 million was spent on metals, plastics and ceramics used in 3-D printers last year, up from $218 million in 2009, according to Terry Wohlers, president of industry consultant Wohlers Associates, Inc. Demand for metals increased to $32.6 million from about $12 million.
Sales of 3-D printers that can use metals jumped 76 percent last year, outpacing total demand for the systems, Wohlers said by phone from Fort Collins, Colorado. The entire market for 3-D printed goods may rise to as much as $550 billion a year by 2025, McKinsey Global Institute said in a report last year.
That’s attracting mining and metals companies.
BHP, the world’s biggest miner, owns 6.85 percent of Metalysis Ltd., a U.K.-based producer of titanium powder that’s been used to create 3-D printed automotive components. Iluka Resources Ltd., the world’s second-largest titanium dioxide producer, paid 12.2 million pounds ($20.3 million) in February for an 18.3 percent stake in the U.K. based metal-powder supplier.
Baosteel, is backing a 3-D research project in Australia. Sandvik AB, a Stockholm-based provider of mining equipment, alloys and metal powders, has about 15 engineers investigating potential new applications of 3-D printing.
GE’s aviation unit will open next year a $125 million center in Alabama that will use 3-D printers to manufacture fuel nozzles for jet engines.
BHP spokeswoman Eleanor Nichols declined to comment on the producer’s outlook on 3-D printing. Zhang Wei, a public relations official with Shanghai-based Baosteel said research was being undertaken, though declined to further comment.
Some large mining companies remain skeptical that 3-D printing will drive a new market for metals, said Xinhua Wu, a professor of materials engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, who has worked on the production of 3-D printed aerospace parts with Paris-based Safran SA.
Metal powders produced for aerospace or medical applications must adhere to strict specifications which can take as long as a decade to meet, and it may be five to 10 years before there is a sufficient market for consumer products that can be printed with lower quality powders, she said. “That’s why people are not jumping on this straight away, and not investing in it straight away,” Wu said by phone.
Rio Tinto Group, the world’s biggest producer of titanium dioxide feedstock, may look at how the new market develops, Sydney-based Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Matthew Hope said by phone. “They certainly wouldn’t be first mover,” he said. Bruce Tobin, a spokesman for Melbourne-based Rio, declined to comment.
Much of the technology can be traced to the University of Texas at Austin, where mechanical engineering students were experimenting in the 1980s with 3-D printers they named Betsy, Godzilla and Bambi. A key patent covering the technology expired this year, according to Wohlers. That will lower prices and open up the field to wider use.
“It’s mind boggling what the future could hold for the use of 3-D printing,” said Andrew Spinks, executive director of Sydney-based Kibaran Resources Ltd., which is developing graphite projects and has signed an agreement with a 3-D printer maker to establish a joint research venture. “Potentially it’s going to be a major use of commodities.”