World trends in metal 3D printers

World trends in metal 3D printers

Column no. 2: Our moment in the spotlight as we exhibit at an upcoming trade show, and our stance of steadily developing equipment suitable for practical use

≪Trends among competitors (includes trade show information)≫

I’m sure you are aware that we are involved in the businesses of production of metal 3D printers and subcontracted processing as well as providing support for benchmark test to companies considering our equipment (OPM250/350L).
This year, the number of companies considering purchasing our equipment has increased massively, and as of the end of September our number of benchmark test projects was approximately three times more than projected. We expect a further increase of nearly three or four times since we plan to introduce the new OPM350 L model at the JIMTOF trade show in November.
Under these conditions, despite repeatedly increasing our numbers of designers we have been unable to meet customers’ requested delivery times. I would like to take this opportunity to express my apologies for any resulting inconvenience.
Now on to the main subject of this column. This fiscal year I have had more opportunities to visit competitors’ booths at trade shows in Japan and around the world, actively inspecting their exhibits and exchanging opinions with staff in their booths. This has proved educational from a variety of perspectives.
European and North American metal 3D printer makers work hard to make sure that their booths are stylish and attractive, both in their booth decorations and in how they exhibit their products, and to ensure that their booths feel welcoming to the general public. At each trade show, they attracted a lot of attention and large crowds of people.
But I was concerned about one point. I ask the question every day how a company like ours that handles subcontracted processing using metal 3D printers in practical operations on a daily basis can measure work with no datum plane to secure precision in secondary processing. At every opportunity, I asked the following questions at each booth:

  • Where should measurement of the works on exhibit be centered? What kind of final measurement precision can be expected in the completed products after secondary processing?
  • For how long can the works actually be used without breaking?

It is a fact that I was unable to get a reasonable answer from any overseas metal 3D printer maker. From this, one can surmise that the main purposes of use of their equipment are not in markets that demand strict measurement precision and that, with the exception of some very large companies, they still are seeking out ways to expand use of their products to mass-production workplaces from their current domains of design and prototypes.

Fig. 1-(i) Comparison of work (importance of datum plane)

When building a house, everything is kept
level through accurate measurement.
Failure to build the house based on
accurate measurement will result in defects.

The datum plane is the basis of measurement for the next process. Just as with measurement in architecture, if the datum plane is not highly precise it will not be possible to produce a precise finished product.

A D printer using lasers only:
・ Is incapable of producing a adtum plane
・ Reflects consideration of the plate as a stand (not used for other purposes)

Fig. 1-(ii) Comparison of works
  • Examples of parts produced by other companies

    What kind of secondary processing should be used in finishing the final product to secure precision? Even if producing a complex form, if it needs to be produced with sufficient thickness then it is the same as producing it from a simple form. Questions remain about where to start measurement of the datum plane for proceeding with secondary processing . . .

    Examples of parts produced by other companies
  • Actual level of parts required by the market

    The market has tough demands for precision of mechanical parts and molds. The photos make it clear: the OPM method realizes high precision since it employs both layering and milling process inside the equipment.

    Actual level of parts required by the market

We face the constant need for strict measurement precision and assurance of mechanical strength in our subcontracting and test processing. Competing in these businesses requires testing based on specifications and requirements that are just as strict as for products produced through ordinary manufacturing processes, addressing cases in which tolerances are not satisfied, and accumulation of relevant expertise. However, it seems to me that since the metal 3D printer market still is an immature one, awareness among users is likely to change each time a customer conducts a trial. Service bureaus can be broken down into the two main categories of companies that have positioned themselves in a way similar to photocopy shops that provide printing services and service bureaus acting as manufacturers that repeatedly make improvements every day, with staffs that include numerous designers and manufacturing engineers. Personally, I hope that both of these categories will continue to grow in the future.

≪Our stance of steadily developing equipment suitable for practical use: 1≫

As you know, each metal 3D printer maker is engaged in keen competition in the area of development to improve the speed of 3D printing.
We too are focusing on speed improvements. While available methods of improving the speed of our equipment include increasing the output of laser generators and laser radiation through installation of multiple laser generators and galvano scanners, each of these methods would lead to increased costs. We are moving forward with development using a method that would not lead to increased costs as much as possible. This is the parallel mode described in the first technological development report on our website Our development efforts have focused on using this method through extensively streamlining inefficient use of time.
Essential to increasing laser speed is simultaneous improvement in chamber technologies to prevent nonmetallic impurities from getting inside the work while also maintaining not only speed but a high melting rate as well. Further needs are those for durability testing to ensure that no problems will arise during long-term use, reliability testing including reproducibility, and providing a guarantee as a maker. While it would be possible to make a dazzling demonstration at trade shows and other events at an earlier stage, since it would be irresponsible to deceive users into thinking that they could do the same thing as seen in the dazzling demonstration immediately just by purchasing the same equipment used in the demo, we decided to conduct repeated careful testing and then release the model at JIMTOF, which starts on November 17, 2016.
As demonstration content we are preparing to demonstrate parallel radiation (which our studies show shortens fabrication time by up to 56% and shortens cutting time by up to 58% compared to previous lasers) and how the cutting process, the strongest feature of the composite metal 3D printer, realizes substantial improvements in cut-surface roughness.

Fig. 2. Overview of demonstration

The upper photograph shows a work produced one year ago using the OPM250L, while the lower photo shows a work produced based on feedback from research findings. A look at the surface roughness of the vertical wall of the work, cut using a new special-purpose OPM tool that we designed, shows improvements of at least 1.5 times in Ra estimated average surface roughness Rz 10-point average surface roughness. We already have applied for international patents for this technology and expect to secure rights to it, and we plan a formal release of the technology in the future.

Fig. 3. New multilayer processing method using tools with new specifications

≪Our stance of steadily developing equipment suitable for practical use: 2≫

From my experience, it is difficult for users who have purchased metal 3D printer equipment to put it into operation smoothly based on ordinary training on the equipment and industrial methods alone. This is because equipment makers fail to provide the minimum information necessary for design and production. For example, in addition to data on materials properties and general mechanical strength, equipment makers need to disclose information such as data on design characteristics, showing how best to design works parts, recommended 2D processing suited to each material and results of various types of fatigue testing (such as S-N curves), and graphs of rebound related to residual stress, so that users can carry out optimal design and production.
However, the above requires a very high volume of testing, as well as incorporating experience and other results of practical operations. As such, it is difficult for an equipment maker to achieve it entirely alone. We at OPM Laboratory play this role within the Sodick Group, and as a result we are ready to facilitate our customers’ operations.

≪About the OPM350L≫

An overview of the OPM350L was published in the October 11 issue of the Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun newspaper.


While personally I would have liked to have released this equipment a little bit earlier, as noted above the OPM350L was the subject of repeated and exceptionally enthusiastic R&D and testing by development staff from both Sodick and OPM Laboratory.
While other companies already have announced and begun sales of equipment capable of producing work in larger sizes, personally I expect, from a look at their specifications, that such devices could be purchased only by very large firms for purposes such as R&D use, since it would be difficult for an ordinary company to recover their initial cost in consideration of capital-investment decisions and breakeven points.
The Sodick OPM350L to be released soon enables a practical work size of X:Y:Z = 350:350:350 mm, and we plan to price it in a range that will make it possible to recover the initial cost fully (in terms of performance such as speed of fabrication).
Although the following might be examples of difficult products, the size 350 x 350 x 350 mm is:

Fig. 4. Examples of products that can fit inside a 350 ㎜ cube
  • Multiple molds for nearly all Black & Decker power tools, popular among DIY aficionados*, could fit in a 350 mm x 350 mm cube.
    * I too am a loyal user.

  • The standard size of an electric fan blade is 300 mm. Apparently, a minimum of 300mm is needed to ensure the fan is comfortable and quiet.

  • It’s said that an engine consists of 2500 to 5500 parts. This size is capable of producing a cylinder head cover for one of Japan’s famous direct-fuel-injection four-cylinder engine.

  • A size that would make it possible to form the cylinder head of a direct fuel-injection four-cylinder automotive engine;
  • A size suitable for the standard 300 mm size of a household electric fan 300;
  • A size that would make it possible to produce two molds for power tools, leading products that have made our conformal cooling technology well known in the world today, as opposed to producing them one at a time with a 250 mm size; and,
  • A size that would make it possible to produce simultaneously from six to eight units, depending on layout, of our specialty of printer ink cartridge case molds, which until now could be made only three at a time.

As seen from the examples above, it is a very practical size that will result in substantial improvements in the speed and precision of production. For these reasons, we intend to finish it up as a product that we can bring to market with confidence.
Note: For detailed figures and specifications, see the Sodick website.

≪Key points of demonstration of actual equipment at the JIMTOF trade show≫

We consider demonstrations at the JIMTOF trade show to be an excellent opportunity for demonstrating the clear differences between our equipment, which clearly surpasses the competition in speed and precision, and traditional metal 3D printers that do not use cutting.
We plan exhibits that will provide a feel for how our products actually can be used under the tough conditions of the manufacturing workplace, focusing on the following points:

  • Visitors can view high-speed fabrication in parallel mode.
  • Parts on display that were formed using parallel mode should enable a full understanding of their focus on precision and efficiency.
  • We also plan to demonstrate clearly matters such as comparison of time requirements with traditional industrial methods.
  • We also will provide exhibits based on the point of what kinds of designs are needed to satisfy the precision requirements of final products.
  • We will promise design of systems that are extremely gentle on the environment and on operators, through unceasing progress in automation of the supply and recovery of powdered metallic materials.