Is your company considering 3D metal printing yet? In the coming years demand for 3D printing is expected to grow dramatically. Between now and the year 2024, the market will more than double.
For any business that produces metal parts, it is going to be important to investigate whether investing in this technology is worth your while. Besides deciding if it’s suitable for the kinds of parts you make, you’ll also want to consider the costs of 3D metal printing. Does 3D metal printing make sense for your company compared to more traditional techniques - such as formative or subtractive manufacturing?
In this guide you will learn about the 5 costs of 3D metal printing, which are
- -The printer itself
- -The materials
- -Post-processing costs
- -Staff cost
- -Editing software
You can then calculate if it’s right for your business.
What are the 3 different methods for metal 3D printing?
Calculating the precise cost of 3D metal printing can be challenging because of the number of variables involved. The variable that has the highest impact on cost is the type of printing you opt for. There are essentially three routes you can go down:
Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) or Selective Laser Melting (SLM)
These are the techniques that most people have in mind when they think of 3D metal printing. They use similar methods and allow you to create high geometric complexity. A laser is used to selectively melt layers of metal powder to gradually build up a structure.
In this approach, a layer of metal powder is spread over the build platform and a binder is then deposited at specific points. Then another layer of powder is spread over the top. The derived “green part” is then to be processed by a sintering step.
Principally used for prototypes, this is very similar to plastic 3D printing except that instead of liquid plastic, a metal powder and binder are passed through the nozzles. This gradually builds up the desired structure.
For most metal manufacturing operations, DMLS/SLM will be the 3D metal printing techniques of choice. Generally speaking, these printers are the most expensive but also provide the most practical approach for serious manufacturing. We will therefore focus on the costs of using DMLS and SLM in the rest of this article.
Costs of 3D metal printing: DMLS/SLM
The following information can be used as a guide to help you build up a business case for investing in 3D metal printing. The precise costs will of course vary from one organisation to another depending on your output levels and the cost of the specific parts and machines that you choose.
Here are the main costs of 3D metal printing.
The printer itself
3D metal DMLS and SLM printers come in a variety of sizes and with more or less advanced features. At the low end, you can find machines at around the $200,000 mark, with mid-range machines costing closer to $500,000. The most sophisticated 3D metal printers can cost $1.5 million or more. You’ll also want to budget for installation and support.
If you’re new to 3D metal printing, these up-front costs may feel excessive. To begin with it may be worth outsourcing your 3D metal printing to a specialist service provider. In this way you can experiment with the marketability of your idea. If your project is a success, you may then choose to purchase your own in-house 3D printer.
For DMLS and SLM, you will need to buy metal powders to use when printing. Guide prices per kilogramme of powder are detailed below:
- Nickel: Expect to pay upwards of $50 per kilo
- Titanium: Expect to pay $150 and above per kilo
- Steel: You’ll pay $75 and up per kilo
- Aluminium: Often as little as $5 per kilo (although this will be lower quality)
One key benefit of metal 3D printing is that waste is relatively low - you can recycle around 90% of the unused powder on a specific build.
There are several post-processing costs to bear in mind when 3D printing with metal. Each of these activities will require labour time as well as specialised equipment:
This is mainly a fixed labour cost. Part separation can take anywhere from an hour up to a day or two, depending on the complexity of your design.
The costs of tooling and machining to smooth services will depend on the complexity of the part. This could involve anywhere from a couple of hours’ labour up to a couple of days.
Heat, pressure, or chemical treatment
Various treatments may be required for the purposes of hardening the unit. Putting a precise figure on these costs is very difficult. As a rule of thumb, this kind of post-processing can add as much as 10% to your overall costs.
Software cost for 3D editing
Software licences for 3D printing can also be relatively expensive. You will normally want to invest in CAD software. Licence fees will typically set you back around €15,000 per user, per year. You will also need a high-spec computer to run the tech – typically costing in the region of €3,000 - €6,000.
An alternative to buying the software outright is to rent a cloud-based machine where you pay for a remote desktop and CAD software on a monthly subscription basis. This can cost as little as $280 per month.
Another significant cost of 3D metal printing is employing staff who have the skills to create 3D designs. According to payscale.com the average salary for professionals in this sector is around $62,000 per year.
If your company has traditionally specialized in formative or subtractive manufacturing you may need to retrain your staff too. Basic 3D metal printing courses cost between $300 and $1,000 per employee.
Projections for what 3D metal printing will cost you
Depending on your needs and requirements, the cost of 3D metal printed parts could vary significantly. The following estimates for the first year of 3D metal printing can help you figure out roughly how much to budget for, depending on your company’s plans.
Low cost: $100,000 in the first year
In the low cost model, you outsource printing to a 3D printer hire company and use subscription-based software. You also opt for lower cost materials and make a relatively limited number of manufacturing runs. The aim is to explore if 3D metal printing is appropriate for your business.
Medium cost: $500,000 in the first year
In the medium cost model, we assume that you purchase your own ‘standard’ machine to use in your workshop. You still outsource some of your costs by using cloud-based 3D printing software.
High cost: $2 million in the first year
In this model, you opt for a high end machine setting you back over $1 million. You also hire a number of CAD designers full time and purchase several software licenses and CAD computers. You print using more expensive powders, and run the machine extensively (increasing your energy usage). You also invest in training up many of your staff.
Do the benefits justify 3D metal printing costs?
Deciding how much you're willing to invest in 3D metal printing depends on your business strategy and budget. For smaller metal workshops, the outsourcing model might be the way to go - at least to begin with. It gives you the opportunity to explore how the technology works and test the market for your designs. For larger firms, buying your own machine will give you greater control and flexibility.
Although the costs of 3D metal printing remain relatively high, the potential rewards are significant. The ability to produce extremely specialized and complex parts could open up major new markets for you - and the investment may more than pay for itself.
By taking the time to consider the benefits and costs of 3D metal printed parts, you can choose the right option for your organization.