World trends in metal 3D printers

World trends in metal 3D printers

1st column: The relationship between development resources and financial strength (resolve of manufacturers/companies listed on the first section of the Japanese stock exchange)

Thanks to all of you, this fiscal year marks the 13th year since the founding of our company.
As you know, since our founding we have been engaged in business focused on metal 3D printer technology.
I often think back, even today, on what a miracle it is that we have come this far.
But there is no doubt that, in the past, I was working frantically, unable to take vacation, sleeping at the company as a matter of course. Once we worked through the night for three days in a row to meet user needs, but we weren't able to achieve any results. I planned to take the first plane in the morning to apologize to our Korean users, but couldn’t even walk straight due to exhaustion, and we lost a major deal. Our business overseas grew rapidly, and times continued where I had to spend more than half of the year overseas, madly putting together a forced schedule: China to Hong Kong to Taiwan to the US to Singapore. But due to the large differential in heat and cold I became unwell in Singapore just before returning to Japan, and had to stay in a local hospital to rest for a week with an IV drip. There were many difficult times.

Now on to the main topic of this first column: the relationship between development resources and financial strength. Before joining the Sodick Group, our financial strength was poor. We were unable to carry out the development we wanted to, and our R&D was limited in scope. Everyday we were thinking, "if we could only do this development, our technology would improve dramatically."
As you know, OPM Laboratory is a company which began as a venture, so we had to procure development funds from venture capital, or turn to bank loans and the like. Available funds were definitely not abundant, and research tended to be geared toward R&D and product development with a short-term perspective focused on immediate profit. It was extremely difficult to carry out development with a long-term perspective.

R&D items for metal 3D printer technology:

  • Development of basic methods/algorithms
  • Development of metal powder material
  • Development of software
  • Development of equipment/control(including all laser, optical, and cutting types)
  • Development of design techniques
  • Killer application development, etc.

The items to be developed are extremely numerous and cover a wide range, and cannot be handled by a single venture company.
*In the case of combined processing, parameters are extremely numerous.
Did we understanding this situation at the time of our founding? Speaking honestly, the answer is: no.
The technology itself was immature and just emerging, and each time a phenomenon, event or problem occurred in the manufacturing process, we had to carry out an investigation together with Panasonic and the equipment manufacturers we were partnered with at that time, and then carry out verification and take countermeasures each time.

At present, we have joined the Sodick Group, and now have ample development funding and an improved development environment. We can now put our feet on the ground, and move forward with R&D from both the short- and long-term perspective.
For example, in development to improve printing speed, a few specialized machines for development are inadequate if we take into account experiments that must be repeated numerous times.

If we consider new material development, an equipment environment must be put in place with specialized machines for each material type. Carrying out alternating development, where switching is done between materials with different ingredients, cannot be done due to the inefficiency, and if users are to be provided with perpetual support, we must continue with optimization of laser conditions.

To improve equipment performance, we must perform simultaneous rush testing with multiple machines, and confirm stability/repeatability.

As a developer and (equipment) manufacturer, we cannot fight our battles without financial strength and an organization which allow us to obtain a considerable number of development machines, and to speedily prepare development/verification machines when necessary.
The Sodick Group is the only one with the financial strength and decision-making speed to make that feasible, and even today, many development machines are operating to accelerate R&D.
The other day, we had to hurriedly expand our development/verification machines, and a decision was made about two days after submitting a request for decision. Two weeks later, the machine was finished and ready to start experiments. This was a wonderful response.

Next, I'd like to discuss the situation from the perspective of metal 3D printer equipment manufacturers (players) in key countries. The following table lists the number of equipment manufacturers (players) in key countries in the previous fiscal year.
Powder bed fusion type equipment manufacturers are subdivided by country (horizontal axis), and number of manufacturers/supported sizes (vertical axis).

Fig. 1: Key equipment manufacturers worldwide for metal 3D printers, numbers and trends

Fig. 1: Key equipment manufacturers worldwide for metal 3D printers, numbers and trends

Simply put, there are 14 equipment manufacturer companies in countries throughout the world, but there are only a few companies if we only consider large-scale companies and those we regard as competitors. There are also manufacturers in China, but since the actual conditions there are unclear and there is almost no word of those manufacturers in the market, it is unlikely they will become competitors.

Among these companies, the Sodick Group can definitely be expected to take the top position in terms of scale and development organization. We are newcomers as equipment manufacturers, but, to put the point metaphorically, we have development capabilities and financial strength to open up a new path like a large bulldozer. We also have the major advantage that all of the development items can be completed within the group, with no conflicts of interest. Based on past experience, if development is done through corporate collaborations with other professionals in the country, then conflicts of interest become complicated at the business stage, so things do not go smoothly, and a deadlock results.

Figure 2 shows the world market and trends for the future in metal 3D printing (source: Roland Berger). These are only one organization's forecasts, but they suggest the world market will be 633–800 units/year in FY2018, and 982–1200 units/year in FY2023.
*This is a general forecast and does not distinguish between types of metal 3D printing. The estimate assumes as a requirement that speed must be increased while further reducing equipment cost.

Fig. 2: World market and trends in metal 3D printing

Fig. 2: World market and trends in metal 3D printing

From the perspective of market needs, users have noticed that parts fabricated by metal 3D printers cannot be used if their precision cannot be guaranteed, and it has become clear that the ability to freely make complicated things is not enough for practical use, and the scope where actual use is possible is extremely narrow if a combined system (with cutting) is not used. Within a few years, the field should be thinned out, and the world map should be redrawn.

To conclude, we are taking up the challenge with a determined mindset toward full-scale development and business.
I can't explain the details now, so I hope you will have high expectations for JIMTOF2016 to be held in November.