Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been around in one shape or form for a while. There has been a lot of interest in 3D printing for easing supply chain congestion, especially when it comes to small spare parts. Well, 3D printing’s next big act could be manufacturing large metal objects. If this method can be used on a large scale, US supply chains could be reimagined. This new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and improving the resilience of US supply chains.
The additive manufacturing process essentially entails building a three-dimensional object from computer-aided design (CAD) to add material layer by layer until a final product is complete. 3D printing’s effect on the supply chain can be summarized as the following: warehouses no longer need to keep as many parts in stock. The rationale is that the parts can simply be printed on an as-needed basis. this also means that warehouses can carry less physical inventory but potentially more stock keeping units (SKUs). More SKUs available from local warehouses could also mean quicker replenishment cycles parts that are purchased infrequently. This vision has not been realized.
One of the questions with additive manufacturing is how long it will take to print what is needed. Clearly this depends on the complexity of the item that needs to be printed. It also depends on the speed settings of the printer, the size of the item, the type of 3D printer being used, the print quality settings, and infill density. In an article last year, it was reported that the time it takes to print things has decreased. Printing times included:
- 2×4 Lego: 4 minutes
- Cell Phone Case: 20 minutes
- Baseball (with infill 15%): 2 hours
- Small toys: 1-5 hours depending on complexity
With production this slow, 3D printing cannot be used in high scale manufacturing. A new method from a startup called Seurat Technologies could be the breakthrough the industry has been waiting for. The company is saying their process 10 times faster than incumbent 3D metal printing based on Laser Powder Bed Fusion. Further, they believe they can scale to making their process 100 times faster by 2025.
This is still not fast enough for high speed manufacturing. But many products are personalized. The parts that provide the personalization – a sun roof on a car versus a standard roof, for example – often do not need to be made at scale. This new process could lead to both a greater use of 3D printing for spare parts and for personalized products.
Of course, it is not just speed of printing that matters but cost. The company believes they can print fast and at a reasonable price that will also go down with scale. They claim to be able to facilitate the production of parts at $300/kilogram. The company aims to bring this down to $150/kilogram by 2025. Today’s established 3D metal printing technologies cost, according to Seurat, between 1-2 $/cm³. To be competitive with traditional serial manufacturing, the cost must be reduced to less than 0.1 $/cm³. That is what they must scale to.
If Seurat’s method pans out, we move from using 3D printing not just in producing spares, but as an integral part of the manufacturing process. Some venture investors see the potential. On January 20th of this year, the company announced a $21 million Series B extension, bringing its total funding up to $79 million. It’s lead investor is Capricorn. Every Seurat employee also has equity in the business.
Of course, it is easier for venture capitalists to see potential when there are customer proof points. The company says it has secured seven letters of intent from companies operating in the automotive, aerospace, energy, consumer electronics and industrial sectors to join its commercialization program. This program is set to begin launching this year. They also have over 120 patents granted or pending.
The process is based on what they call “Area Printing.” Area Printing uses a powerful laser containing over 2.3 million pixels to micro-weld thin metal powder layers to the area below it, manufacturing entire renderings at once in a single defined area.
It is not unusual for start-ups to make big claims. They don’t always pan out. Nevertheless, this is a company worth following. This could be a catalyst for near shoring and more reliable supply chains.