Zortrax recently made an exciting announcement about its latest offering—the full metal package for the M300 Dual 3D printer. This got me thinking about the fascinating developments taking place in desktop metal FFF 3D printing (not the company itself). But before we dive into that, let me ask you a quick question: have you ever noticed what Ultimaker, Zortrax, and BCN3D Technologies have in common? Besides the fact that they all develop and sell FFF 3D printers, they have all ventured into the world of Metal FFF by offering metal packages or kits. These packages are designed to transform their regular polymer FFF 3D printers into capable metal 3D printing units.
Essentially, these packages are a collection of necessary items that allow users to print metal parts using their existing desktop polymer FFF 3D printers. BCN3D has been offering an expansion pack for a few years now, while UltiMaker and Zortrax have recently joined the metal FFF 3D printing bandwagon.
But besides the introduction of metal packages, there is one other factor that binds these companies together. However, before we explore that aspect, let’s take a moment to understand why Metal FFF is becoming an increasingly becoming a segment to look out for in the coming years.
Metal FFF 3D Printing – The segment to look out for!
The cost of metal 3D printing has long been a barrier to its widespread adoption. Many users are deterred by the substantial upfront investment and operational expenses associated with incorporating metal printing technologies, particularly for smaller businesses. While competition has started to bring prices down, they still remain relatively high. Additionally, despite recent consolidations in the additive manufacturing industry, there hasn’t been a significant impact on price reduction, at least yet, (assuming that the consolidation will improve efficiency and drive prices down).
The widespread adoption of metal 3D printing will only flourish with the availability of more affordable options. Consequently, companies are striving to create cost-effective alternatives that can be adopted by a broader user base. As this is quite difficult in pure metal technologies there is one other route open for the industry, the extrusion technology route. Established FDM/FFF leaders are jumping on the opportunity to offer metal FFF capabilities through expansion packages thereby significantly offsetting the costs associated with metal 3D printing.
While extrusion-based printers have been around for a while and the technology itself is mature, the challenge of reliable metal filaments has persisted. However, significant progress has been made in recent years towards developing reliable metal 3D printing filaments that consistently deliver impressive results and performance comparable to traditional processes. Yet, the hurdle doesn’t end with the availability of these filaments; the real challenge lies in successfully integrating metal filament extrusion into existing polymer FFF printers.
BCN3D took an early lead compared to its competitors by introducing its metal pack in 2021, and since then, UltiMaker and Zortrax have followed suit with their own versions. Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that these metal packs share a fundamental common factor. This common factor has been the driving force behind the ongoing revolution in metal FFF 3D printing that we are currently witnessing. In fact, it might just be the key reason why we can expect the normalization of Metal FFF among most FFF 3D printer manufacturers in the years to come.
Where does BASF feature in all this?
Getting to the meat of the article now to answer the question we started this article with – what is a common denominator in the three brands offering metal FFF packages/kits. The common factor is BASF, a renowned multinational company and the world’s largest chemical producer. BASF has quietly slipped under the radar when you try to connect how their metal filaments are having an impact in the metal FFF 3D printing.
BASF has long been actively involved in additive manufacturing and through its production branch, BASF Forward AM, it develops a diverse range of additive manufacturing materials to cater to both business and personal 3D printing needs. Notably, BASF Forward AM made its mark in 2019 with the introduction of the Ultrafuse range of metal filaments. The series began with Ultrafuse 316L, followed by the addition of 17-4 PH stainless steel in December 2020. Complementing these filaments, BASF also launched a support material known as Ultrafuse® Support Layer.
These pioneering materials serve as the foundation of the current metal FFF segment. To further illustrate their significance, take a look at the table below:
|BASF Forward AM Ultrafuse® 17-4 PH
|BASF Forward AM Ultrafuse® 17-4 PH metallic powder filament
|BASF Forward AM Ultrafuse® 316L and 17-4 PH
|BASF Forward AM Ultrafuse® Support Layer
|BASF Ultrafuse® Support Layer
|New exclusive hotend for metal printing
|New hotends for metal printing.
|M300 Dual hotend module with steel nozzle
|Post processing voucher to be redeemed at authorised network of suppliers
|Packaging for green parts and a voucher toward post-processing
|Post processing voucher for a 1000 g of metal parts
|Printing profile in the BCN3D Stratos slicer
|Note: The table showcases the common list of items available in the individual Metal packs/kits
Upon analyzing the table, it becomes clear that the BASF Ultrafuse materials play a crucial role in all the Metal packs. Other products in the metal packages don’t matter as much as the material. Once the material became available, the challenge, as we discussed, for these brands was integrating it into their existing printing systems which at least the three brands in question have incorporated. There are a few other brands that also develop metal FFF 3D printing like Markforged but those companies develop their own materials and therefore not a part of this conversation.
It is claimed by all three companies that the parts produced through this process exhibit practically identical behaviour to those manufactured using MIM or CNC techniques. Though this may seem like an overstatement but metal FFF 3D printing certainly has a lot of factors going its way when it comes to the question of adopting this technology over its costly counterparts.
Advantages of Metal FFF over traditional Metal AM technologies
- Metal FFF 3D printing eliminates the huge capital investment required for technologies like DMLS, SLM, DED and others.
- It eliminates the need for a truly HVAC environment that these technologies demand due to the handling of the powdered material.
- Skill level required by the operator is comparatively less and so easy to find workers.
- Can be easily operated in office environment.
- Metal packages are cheap and easy to integrate for customers without any expert support.
The revolutionary aspect of metal packs/kits lies in their ability to transform existing polymer printers into metal 3D printers. For companies and individuals who have already invested in printers like the S5, Endureal, or Epsilon series, acquiring the metal pack is all that’s needed—and it comes at an affordable price (around $1000).
Even buying these printers is quite affordable compared to buying metal 3D printers. The UltiMaker S5 and BCN3D Epsilon W50+SC costs around $12K whereas the Zortrax Endureal costs around $51K. But the more affordable Zortrax M300 Dual costs only $5K. This allows users an affordable entry point into metal 3D printing. So, in short, today you can start metal 3D printing with an initial investment of just around $15K.
This positions metal FFF 3D printing as an intriguing segment to monitor in the years to come. It is inevitable that more and more companies will incorporate metal filaments and metal 3D printing into their polymer printers. For many smaller companies, venturing into metal 3D printing via metal FFF technology seems like a logical step, especially for their immediate and conservative needs.
The BASF Ultrafuse metal filaments are revolutionizing the metal FFF 3D printing segment, and thanks to these filaments, it is expected that more brands will enter this market. BASF metal filaments like the Ultrafuse® 316L and 17-4 PH are proving themselves to be the catalyst in boosting this category.
However, the challenge lies in the incorporation and integration process and this necessitates that brands have complete control over all aspects of the technology, including hardware, software, and firmware. Only then can seamless integration be achieved with relative ease. Firms dependent on third-party hardware, firmware and software will find it difficult to create such metal packs and may end up lagging in a segment that shows promise.
Under the Radar: Through this new “Under the Radar” series, we embark on a journey to uncover the often overlooked, underreported and less obvious trends, patterns, and signs within the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, to provide you with a fresh perspective, that can reshape the AM landscape. This commentary will present the views of the author and will be his/her own perspective and may not always represent the collective views of the industry.
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