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Shaping the metal AM factories of tomorrow

Metal AM service providers are positioning themselves as a transitional step towards digital additive mass production

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Metal AM service providers represent a key transitional step to evolve metal AM from its current status as niche prototyping technology and small-batch production technology to digital serial production and, eventually, mass production within real metal AM factories.

It is no coincidence that, after the largest 3D software companies, such as Autodesk, Dassault Systémes and Ansys, the largest AM service providers that have introduced production capabilities, such as BEAM-IT, Proto Labs, Materialise and even Shapeways, are among the AM companies that have attracted the largest investments and best performed in the stock market in recent years.

Top 10 Metal AM Services

In the recently published report on Metal AM market opportunities and trends, 3dpbm Research conducted a survey to provide an accurate snapshot of the still young and fragmented metal AM services segment.

Out of a total of 142 metal AM services surveyed, Italy’s BEAM-IT, which provides services mainly to the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors and houses over 50 metal PBF 3D printers (combining the total from both companies), was the largest in the world in 2020. This was before completing its acquisition of 3T, which has reinforced this position. Metal AM services provided by Chinese metal L-PBF hardware manufacturer Bright Laser Technologies (currently using over 100 systems to provide metal AM productions services) made it the second largest company for revenues. Toolcraft, the largest metal AM service provider in Germany in terms of revenues, has grown into the third largest metal AM service provider globally by offering both L-PBF and DED capabilities (among other production technologies), which enable the German company to handle high-cost projects.

Metal AM service providers are positioning themselves as a transitional step and shaping the metal AM factories of tomorrow
Inside BEAM-IT’s metal AM production facility

Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, which acquired two large AM service providers (Harvest Technologies and Solid Concepts) in 2014, and 3D Systems On Demand Manufacturing close the top 5 list. Just this month, 3D Systems On Demand business became a stand alone company under the previously used brand Quickparts, after acquisition by equity firm Trilantic North America (see the exclusive interview with the new CEO in this issue). Both Stratasys Direct and Quickparts offer metal AM capabilities using mainly L-PBF technology. Falcontech, sixth company by revenues, is a Chinese metal AM service pure player, leveraging primarily metal L-PBF technology from SLM Solutions and Farsoon. The seventh place is occupied by Oerlikon, a large metal material provider headquartered in Switzerland with major metal AM operations in both Europe (where it acquired metal AM service provider Citim) and the US. The Swiss company is followed by Proto Labs, a major digital manufacturing outsourcing service provider which also offers metal AM services with 35 machines installed. French AM service provider PolyShape, which was acquired by French metal AM hardware manufacturers AddUp, is the largest in France and ninth globally in terms of revenues. The 10th company on this list was UK metal AM service provider 3T. After a difficult year in 2020 and acquisition by BEAM-IT this spot is now taken  by rising star Morf3D, which specializes in metal AM for the aerospace, space and defense sectors. Other relevant companies in this space with significant growth potential include Siemens Materials Solutions, Sauber Engineering and KAM.

Types of Metal AM Service Providers

The metal AM production services segment is still largely made up of small and medium-size enterprises. The fastest growing metal AM service companies today are usually AM hardware providers (such as 3D Systems, Stratasys Digital Metal, ExOne) or digital manufacturing outsourcing service providers and networks (such as Proto Labs, Xometry, Materialise, Jabil, Siemens Materials Solutions) that offer metal AM services as part of a full suite of digital production services that include other AM processes or non-AM processes.

Design and prototyping services

Metal AM first emerged as a rapid prototyping and tooling technology. Today the majority of metal 3D printing services derive from the pioneers who first brought metal 3D printers in house to complement other technologies. These types of firms usually own less than three small-format metal AM systems and are gradually expanding their AM capabilities to offer low-batch AM production along with prototypes and tools. Often these firms generate added value through DfAM (design for additive manufacturing) and consultancy services, leveraging their extensive experience in producing AM parts.

Metal AM service providers are positioning themselves as a transitional step and shaping the metal AM factories of tomorrow

SME specialized metal AM service providers

Companies that own between 3 and 10 metal AM systems are categorized in 3dpbm Research’s report as specialized metal AM service providers. These are companies that are able to offer some level of serial metal AM part production in batches of up to a few hundred or low thousand parts per year. In general, these firms offer AM production capabilities along with either polymer AM or other subtractive and formative production services. The key added value is in expertise through the entire digital production workflow, advanced engineering services, NDT capabilities, part inspection and post-processing capabilities.

Large metal AM services and metal AM factories

The past three-year period has started to see the emergence of full-size metal AM factories. These are offered by firms that run at least 10 metal AM systems, including large-format, high-throughput production systems. These firms, of which only about two dozen are present globally today, have developed advanced expertise in outsourcing of serial production capabilities, with advanced expertise in full AM production workflows, which include highly automated AM production lines, from material handling to part finishing. This class of firms has capabilities for the production of several thousand parts per year and is characterized by being largely application agnostic, catering to the demands of clients across aerospace, automotive, medical, tooling, industrial parts, energy and consumer products sectors.

Metal material manufacturers offering AM services

Another key trend that emerged in recent years saw some of the largest metal AM materials manufacturers establish internal metal AM factories and production facilities. Relevant examples include Carpenter Technologies, GKN Additive, Oerlikon, Heraeus, Hoganas and others. In order to bring some AM production capabilities in-house Sandvik, a major metal AM materials manufacturer, acquired a stake in Beam-IT, which (after acquiring its competitor Zare) is today the largest pure-player metal AM service provider in terms of production capabilities.

This investment brings multiple benefits: on the one hand, it enables metal AM manufacturers to capitalize on their investments in AM-specific atomization production lines by marketing high-added value AM parts produced with internally sourced materials. In doing so they also develop unique know-how and expertise in the different metal AM processes which are used to fine-tune the development and tailoring of new AM-process-specific metal alloys.

AM hardware providers and AM service networks

From the start, some of the largest metal AM service providers have been hardware manufacturers. In particular, AM industry leaders 3D Systems and Stratasys have been offering metal AM production capabilities through their respective Stratasys Direct Manufacturing and 3D Systems on Demand Manufacturing.

In China, metal hardware manufacturer Bright Laser Technologies is emerging as one of the largest metal AM factories globally, while specialized service provider Falcontech has grown into a major firm in this segment through a key partnership with hardware provider Farsoon.

Other online digital production service providers, such as Xometry and Hubs (formerly 3D Hubs and now owned by Proto Labs) have focused specifically on creating online digital manufacturing networks leveraging the power of advanced algorithms for calculating the final cost of a metal AM part based on part weight, complexity and material type.

Metal AM service providers are positioning themselves as a transitional step and shaping the metal AM factories of tomorrow

Vertical AM part suppliers

The final category, only marginally included in this ebook’s analysis, is represented by vertical-segment-specific AM parts suppliers. These firms are usually tier-1 and tier-2 suppliers to OEMs in large industrial sectors such as aerospace, automotive, energy, industrial parts or specialized suppliers for the medical and dental sectors. These are firms that have invested in developing specific know-how in the use of AM technologies for their reference sectors. As such they can provide metal AM 3D printing services and eventually act as outsourced metal AM factories to their OEM or tier 1 client as well as produce parts additively to sell to their clients.

Note: This article was originally published in 3dpbm’s AM Services Focus 2021 eBook and is an extract from the 3dpbm Research Metal AM Opportunities and Trends 2020-2030. To learn more about production capabilities, revenue opportunities and specific volumes of parts produced and materials consumed by metal AM service providers in 2020 (with a forecast through 2030), see 3dpbm’s Metal AM Opportunities and Trends report here.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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