Desktop 3D printing in metal may not be coming to an at home desktop in the near future, but it is making big waves in the rapid manufacturing world. Tuan TranPham of Desktop Metal explains three major benefits to 3D printing end use parts in metal and how Desktop Metal is looking to democratize enterprise in this field. We look at how the plastics 3D printing industry should look to the metal 3D printing industry as a guide to truly showcase what this technology can produce when products are designed with consumers and being an end use product in mind.
This episode on desktop 3D printing in metal is sponsored by MakerBot. We’re going to divert from fused filament fabrication today for an interview with someone who’s really trying to do something very disruptive with desktop 3D printing in metal. Desktop is a relative term because it fits on a desk but it doesn’t mean that it’s desktop like a $3,000 machine. It’s by no means that, as you’ll hear. It’s enterprise 3D printing. In this case, it’s enterprise metal 3D printing. I think we want to distinguish that, that this is metal 3D printing for production. That’s the idea. It’s not just prototyping. It’s meant to be end use product.
It’s someone whose name is Tuan. He’s from Boston area and has quite a great resume. Tuan Tranpham, he’s now at Desktop Metal, which is the name of the company. He’s the VP of Business Development. He’s been a 3D print evangelist for metal for quite some time. He’s been working in the industry for over thirteen years. He’s worked at such great companies like ZCorp, 3D Systems, Objet, Stratasys. He was just at Arcam and left six days before GE announced the $1.4 billion buyout deal that they were going for. Really interesting how he shifted around in the industry. He’s going to tell us a little bit about that story.
This is really worth paying attention to because I think all of us that are involved in the desktop 3D printing industry that’s really involving plastics, among other materials. But let’s face it, primarily plastics. We all are interested and aspire to do 3D printing in other materials and metals. We’ve dabbled and it is well and had some of our parts made in metal 3D printing. We did titanium, we did some parts there. We loved it.
It’s really impressive what it can do. It presents a lot of new engineering and functional benefits, design opportunities and all that. He has a goal to really do something revolutionary and help democratize metal 3D printing. While it may not be to the same extent as we’re experiencing, like a thousand dollar machine or a couple thousand dollar machine on your desk, still it will make 3D printing a lot more accessible to businesses and individuals, if you’re so inclined to do that, through service bureau type operations.
It’s really exciting stuff. It’s a really fun interview, I think you’re going to enjoy it. He’s really knowledgeable. Let’s hear from Tuan.
Listen to the podcast here:
Desktop 3D Printing in Metal with Tuan TranPham of Desktop Metal
Tuan, thank you so much for joining us. This is one of our favorite topics, talking about the future of desktop 3D printing in metal. I know you’re passionate about it. We’re really looking forward to diving in and getting to why it’s so critical to the 3D print market.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited as well.
Let’s step to a little bit of your history. As we mentioned in your introduction, you’ve worked for some great companies including Arcam. There has just been a lot of news going on in the industry about 3D printing shakeups and buyouts and acquisitions. Why is metal 3D printing so hot right now?
I think it’s because we have GE as a poster child, talking about what great things they have done with metal 3D printing and the investments they have done in several of the eight divisions of GE. Now you see a consolidation of the few mature players in the industry. It’s really about a supply chain control that it’s purchasing.
That’s really interesting. We have a lot of people who, I’ve mentioned it multiple times on the air, that the idea of a 3D printed plane part or something like that, or any kind of industrial use at that high level, scares them to death. I actually think it’s better. Can you talk to us a little bit about why metal 3D printing is, in some ways, better than some of the traditional methods of creating metal parts?
Sure. Before I do that, just bear in mind what plastic 3D printing has done for the last 30 years for rapid prototyping. Metal 3D printing has actually been around for 20 years. Actually, GE, through the Morris Tech acquisition, has been working on qualifying, validating parts to satisfy FAA the last five to seven years. This has been a long journey. The reason why you’re starting hearing about it more the last two years is because they’re getting ready to turn the switch to production. For that, you need hundreds of parts.
To answer your question, the reason why I am excited about metal rapid manufacturing is the basic truth is metal 3D printing, which is the majority of metal 3D printing is actually in the category called powder bed fusion. Essentially, what that is is high precision microwelding. It’s just a fine welding tip, either electron beam or laser beam. You just meld one fine layer at a time.
Because of that, the material property, the quality of the material you get today is actually superseding and superior to what you find with traditional casting. Because you get a better material property, this is how metal 3D printing has earned the right to have parts on a plane. This is why it is exciting.
Wow, that is fantastic. I also know that historically, there have been lots of issues with parts in aerospace, for example, that have failed and they’re doing sort of a postmortem analysis, forensic analysis of what went wrong with a part.
Often times, there is a bad weld joint of joining two other pieces of metal together. Whether they were cast or they were extruded or formed in some other way. What I understand is with metal 3D printing, you actually can make parts in different ways than you could in the past. You actually don’t have to have certain weld joints. Would you agree with that?
That is correct. There are a lot of benefits to metal 3D print a certain part. In certain cases here, to minimize the amount of joints or welded of several different components … For instance, everybody talks about the fuel nozzle. But really it was about taking 20 components, merge it into one solid file, and redesign that file for additive that is, there’s no other way to produce it.
Therefore, the material property, the complexity, makes it stronger and easy to produce, cheaper and lighter. Most importantly is actually imagine those 20 components where traditionally could have been supplied by 20 different manufacturers going through their traditional manufacturing. By just 3D printing it, you’re moving from a physical warehouse into a virtual warehousing where you do it in house really on demand in your own building. Therefore, you’re really shrinking supply chain by a lot.
And shrinking all of the possibilities of risks, of things going wrong. When you have 20 suppliers, you’re talking about 20 different audits that need to happen, quality control checks, not everyone is going to be operated the same. You’re right. That’s just an amazing consolidation, once you can control that supply chain yourself and you do it in a way that is much more reliable.
That’s amazing. I would say you really are eliminating a lot of risks and potential human error. When you have 20 parts and 20 different companies or people at minimum involved in that, there’s a lot of potential for one of those 20 to have done something wrong.
Yes, and they have to fit together.
Yeah, they have to fit together at the end of the day. They have to fly in space. I get it. It’s amazing. I want to switch gears. You left Arcam right before the GE deal went through and are working on what I think is a really unusual company, Desktop Metal. You’re heading into making metal 3D printing accessible to, who? To designers, to home users? What is the goal with that?
Before I answer that question, it’s been a journey. I’m one of the few people who got into an accidental passion and has built an entire career around it. I spent ten years in plastic 3D printing and got really excited about metals.
I want to give you a little bit of background for Arcam. It went back to three years ago when I was still with Objet, when they were announcing they were going to merge with Stratasys. I was part of the team looking into metal 3D printing.
Three years ago, when I looked at the market, it took the industry 20 years to sell the first 1,000 industrial machines. Back then, it was only 55,000 industrial machines. Only 1,000 industrial metal. Most of them were powder bed. Roughly about $1 million a piece. I got really excited because if less than 2% of the entire industry is metal, there’s definitely room to grow.
I was very lucky to have a conversation with Magnus René three years ago. When the time and opportunity presented itself, I was happy to join Arcam in June 2014, before people really talked about metal 3D printing or even desktop 3D printing in metal. I was betting my career that the next ten years would be in metal because metal 3D printing would disrupt rapid manufacturing, just like plastic has done for rapid prototyping.
That was a good bet on your part.
To answer your question, over the last two years, been with Arcam, great company, great product. It is a niche player in the sense that while there are seven big players in powder bed fusion, six of them are laser beam based. As a sales guy, I didn’t want to have a technology that I have to compete with five others. I deliberately chased electron beam welding through Arcam.
What I found out through Arcam is while metal 3D printing is still very young, it is still very expensive. Going back to your question about why I left a great company like Arcam six days before the announcement that GE was wanting to buy SLM and Arcam, is because I believe that today, if you want to do a decent metal 3D printed part in a decent build envelope, you need to pay, I believe, $600,000 for a powder bed metal machine. Turnkey, with all the accessory, you’re probably looking at $800,000 for a turnkey. That’s not affordable.
For most small businesses, small manufacturing, which is what most companies are.
What I got excited about Desktop Metal, headed by our CEO Ric Fulop with quite an extensive team of PhD professors from MIT and Yale, with $52 million raised the last eleven months. I was excited about this opportunity to join a strong team that is well funded, with strong serial entrepreneurs, and to really democratize enterprise metal 3D printing. Desktop Metal is wanting to make metal 3D printing affordable. This unit would be able to sit on your desk.
What is affordably mean to you though? $600, $800,000? Clearly, that’s only something that can be purchased by very large companies. Compared to that, $80,000 or $60,000 might seem like, “Wow, that’s really affordable.” But putting it on your desk, what’s your goal? I understand you’re not selling them yet. It’s really early stages. What does affordable mean to you?
Today, your options are if you have a smaller pod in less than a three inch cube, you could get started with metal 3D printing for roughly about a quarter million. We still think that is expensive. Even for a small build envelope.
So do we.
I want to also make it very clear. Desktop Metal, the term desktop, it is because it’s the first metal machine that can actually sit on your desktop. But we are not targeting the consumer space or the prosumer space. That is not our area. What we are looking at is democratizing enterprise.
Meaning even small, medium businesses can afford to get started and the thousands of CMC subtractive service bureaus around the country who want to get started going additively but doesn’t want to spend $800,000. We have an option for them.
What’s your goal? $10,000, $20,000, $50,000, $100,000? What is affordable going to be for those enterprise businesses? What’s your goal?
We’re still in research. I’ve been here four weeks.
So you don’t know yet? That’s okay. We totally understand.
You can imagine, I’ve been in 3D printing for twelve years and working for six manufacturers. I’ve seen a few things and I’ve seen a few parts and I talked to a few customers over the last twelve years. I have some idea. It’s going to be exciting. It will be below $200,000. I want to save the good stuff to when we are ready.
When you’re ready, that’s okay. We’ll look forward to having you back to talk about it at that time. Let’s put that in context for people. I don’t know what the going rate for an injection mold machine is. I just want to put this in context. They’re all over the map. It depends on the size and the capacities.
Let’s say a small one, you can probably get into injection molding for probably under $50,000 in a new machine. In a used machine, people are buying those for probably $10,000 to $20,000. It depends, of a certain size. You think about how old those machines are. How old that technology is. They’ve only gotten basically down to $50,000 or something like that.
You look at that and that makes sense for where you’re heading because the price does have to come down but it also does have to compare from a cost benefit analysis to something that, what else would you be using today?
You might not be injection molding something but you might be welding and doing casting and having all of these other machines. You have to compare from a cost benefit analysis where you’re coming to. That’s great. Start at under a couple hundred thousand dollars and the prices will start to come down.
That’s why I left Arcam, because I get to be part of a company that is exciting, with a lot of smart people, and really creating a segment of metal 3D printing that no one has gone before. This is exciting because you get to create it and define it. It’s going to be a journey. We’re going to learn a lot. I would say the most well-funded startup in the metal 3D printing space with $52 million. We’re actually turning down money right now because we don’t need more. It’s going to be exciting.
Let’s go back to where the growth is for metal 3D printing and desktop 3D printing in metal. I see three areas that metal 3D printing is going. Either the complex part that is today done on a five axis milling machine. Those could be 3D printed. There are a lot of parts today that are done through investment casting. Metal 3D printing is taking a share from that. Also, the third one is also design for additive from the beginning. Just like the fuel nozzle through the team at Morris Tech that GE acquired.
That’s one of the ones we’re excited about. Because the idea that the future of design is going to change, now we are not constrained in our thinking of how to design.
It’s actually because of that that metal 3D printing hasn’t even taken off yet. Actually, it’s barely getting onto the tarmac right now. If you think about it, people who really understand metal 3D printing understand that 3D printing is about hardware, software, materials and the process you dial down around all these three.
When you think about the millions of engineers for the last 30 years using Solidworks, Creo, Pro/E or whatever, they were all designed for subtractive manufacturing. How do you recreate, retrain all those engineers to use a ladder structure topology optimization and think about 3D printability.
I would say machines are becoming more robust, more reliable, more affordable. Materials, they are a lot from MIM, the MIM world, that metal 3D printing can borrow from. The process can be dialed down. Software is actually the Achilles heel of metal 3D printing.
Oh my gosh, we think the same thing in all 3D printing actually.
It’s even worse for metal.
I imagine that it is. We think that the same case. You mentioned something there that I want to go back to, because this is what I think is a really interesting idea. Because of the way that we would have to manufacture something, whether we were casting it, welding it or what we were doing, it was actually, in some ways, dictating the materials we were using in those processes. Reality is is that we have a lot more options in material choices today. Can you talk about the material growth that’s happening in metal?
Today, this is still the early days of metal 3D printing. Today, while there are a lot more metals that could be 3D printed, because the industry today is heavily dominated by powder bed fusion, you barely have about 20 different materials, metal materials, that you can use. That’s because we are using casting material.
You look into powder injection molding industry, there’s a lot more alloys that could be, but maybe not through a powder bed fusion. What I’m trying to say, while the industry is growing and it took the industry 20 years to sell the first 1,000 machines, it only took two calendar years to sell the next 1,000. 2015 calendar year was almost 1,000. We are going fast.
That is just on those 15 to 20 alloys that is offered by these seven big players in powder bed fusion. There are a lot more alloys that could be 3D printed and that will open a door to other verticals beyond transportation, like aerospace or automotive.
Precious metal for gold or silver or bronze, for the jewelry industry, that is a very niche market but billions of dollars’ worth. We’re still in the infancy of that vertical. Imagine if we start doing copper much better, palladium much better, or tungsten, niobium. We need all those newer and sexier alloys if we want to go to Mars.
I know. I was thinking of how hot copper is right now. Being able to get that. I can’t even tell you how many people come to us and say, “We want to add copper to this.”
There will be more materials. The machines will be bigger. They’ll have more production features, quality management systems. But materials is going to open the door to more new, younger verticals that would drive the industry.
Tuan, can you tell us about the tolerance that you expect to be able to achieve, especially in the surface texture quality of metal 3D printed parts the way you’re going to do them? We do have some experience with some metal 3D printed parts, with existing technology.
Actually, we’re very impressed with the quality of parts that we have tested and printed. It seems that they have a very heavy texture that’s a result of this powder bed fusion process. Is there improvement being done in that regard? Is that something you’re working on? Or is that always going to be a post process?
I think the reality is that any technology has a post processing. While it’s nice to have a Star Trek machine, push a button and you get a net shaped part, even in the plastic world with no post processing, it’s really not here yet. I don’t think the different criteria available … Actually for people who are already in the industry, it’s really not the surface finish because people understand that …
For instance, the low pressure turbine blade. They are not running it at 100 microns. GE is running it at over 200 microns because they know they can get good material property. They just want that low pressure turbine blade twelve to fifteen inches tall, super fast with a good material property because they’re just going to machine the surface exactly to what they need.
Because that’s a lot cheaper than paying for the tooling, doing machining of a huge blocks, having 85% waste. Compared to going additively, you reduce that waste to 5%. It’s a new way of doing things.
The surface finish I think is not where the manufacturer are putting their efforts towards. It’s more making it more industrial. Meaning more lights out, hands free, running by itself with the high productivity, low aisle time. For the whole process, not just the printing but also the post processing.
While it is possible for existing technology to have even a finer laser beam or electron beam and even thinner layers, but then the powder is going to be more expensive because of the powder distribution that is being produced. If you just want to superfine, then it’s becoming very expensive.
A titanium powder in a larger course grain can be $200 per kilogram, like from Arcam. If you’re buying it from DOEM for a laser powder bed running at 20 microns, you get much nicer surface finish and fine detail and sharp edges, but you’re paying $600 per kilogram. Imagine doing thousands of fuel nozzles or thousands of low pressure turbine blades, that’s a big price gap. That’s not where they are pushing. They still want higher quality, consistency.
I think the trick is people need to understand that plastic 3D printing is great for prototyping, one to five off. Manufacturing is a whole new ball game. It’s almost like you want to dial down your process for certain materials, certain parameters. You almost don’t want to breathe on your machine because you just want it to be a work horse cranking 1000 parts and they’re identical in microstructure, in property, in repeatability.
That’s the name of the game. For that low cost material and having that control, machining it on a rough surface finish is fine. Unless you’re an orthopedic. You actually want that roughness for bone and growth, for implants.
I understand that. Actually when I was asking about the surface quality, I was asking a little more in reference to you mentioning jewelry. There’s an industry that has a lot of handwork already. I wondered, doing gold or copper or maybe platinum someday, I imagine it would still have a bit of a rough surface texture but you’d have to buff it and polish it, probably similar to how they do today.
Today, what most people are doing in jewelry is lost wax casting. That’s nice and that’s affordable. You get a high precision wax model than you do that process. There are geometry … Remember that 3D printing loves organic shapes, and I hate edges. There won’t be, in my world in the future, there won’t be edges on windows, on jewelry, on table tops or anything. It will be beautiful bionic shapes. Jewelry is going to transform where not only is it going to be organic shape, but also we talk about mass customization.
We agree. Absolutely. We like to ask everyone, right before we wrap up, what they think is the biggest opportunity and/or challenge to their industry, to their particular area of the industry. In your case, that’s metal 3D printing. What is the biggest challenge or opportunity for growth in this market area?
I think for any business getting started with 3D printing, whether it be in plastic or metal, metal 3D printing and desktop 3D printing in metal is going to change the world. It’s going to change the trillion dollar businesses that exist today. Really understanding this new technology and having the people with the know-how and pushing the boundaries and how to adapt it is going to be key.
Hardware, software, materials and the process around it for your design. Basically, if you’re any aerospace company and you haven’t purchased any metal 3D printing yet, hello, you’re five years behind. People have already been doing this for five to seven years.
It’s going to be a competitive advantage and you need to do your due diligence. There’s still time. We’re still in the early days. Provided that GE does not buy more companies, then there won’t be enough tools to buy and use in the future. But you’ve got to learn the new tool. It will be disruptive.
If you understand how to design for additive using metal 3D printing, how it can complement your business, how it actually would give you more worth on your machining if you’re a CNC Shark. It’s going to be a competitive advantage and you’re also going to be future proofing your business.
Future proofing. Oh my gosh, we just talked about that on a recent episode. We were just saying the same thing, that this is the time to get an evaluation of all of your processes of business. Not just your prototyping, but your manufacturing process, your competitive future and your products line. Start to get an assessment as to how you can begin today to transition to a future of a 3D printed world.
What most companies could do, small, medium or large, is putting together a small skunk works team. Very young people who are not contaminated with the traditional world of manufacturing, and really give them the tools and let them go to conferences to learn and where to push the boundaries and what software to use. Then feed back to the company on what to invest.
Because the problem that I see with this entire industry is there’s not enough good content out there that actually can educate people. When I joined Arcam two and a half years ago, I was shocked. At Google, everywhere, I couldn’t find a decent metal 3D printing tutorial for me to ramp up and to do my job. It didn’t exist. My journey into metal 3D printing, whatever I have learned, I have chosen to share that insight as objective and as quickly as I could and shared that. Knowledge is right now a bigger problem than software used for additive 3D printer.
Tuan, thank you so much. Can I invite our audience to connect with you on LinkedIn? I know that where you primarily post a lot of that information. Would that be all right?
Sure, thank you for that.
Thank you, Tuan. We really appreciate it. We are so excited to have heard all about this market area and the growth. Your passion for it has certainly come across. We really look forward to seeing what happens in the future when the research is done and you really start doing it. We’d love to know more.
Absolutely. I’m very excited.
Desktop 3D Printing in Metal – Final Thoughts
I loved some of the things Tuan said on desktop 3D printing in metal. The idea of it being the future of design being such a critical part of all the things that we don’t even know, we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do with this.
I look at our history of working in manufacturing and product design for manufacturing. The reality is whenever you can take timeout of the process, labor out of the process, different parts out of the process, consolidate them into one, there’s a whole lot of cost savings here.
That operational cost savings also is a risk savings because you start to remove more people touching parts, more suppliers in the chain. When you look at all of that, you look at actually great savings. With that, that’s why you don’t have to come down that far in cost, because you’re being compared to not just one machine that you’re replacing. You’re being compared to the purchase of one machine and all the operational savings and the risk savings and benefits that you’re providing. Or multiple machines and multiple parts and assembly of parts.
To me, the real benefit for all of us in this world, I’m talking about society in general, is really what’s going to happen in the future is the cars that our kids and maybe our grandkids are driving or the airplanes that they’re flying on are going to be more safe. They’re going to have fewer mechanical problems because the structures and the parts that make up these critical systems are simplified in the sense that, like he gave the example of 20 parts reduced to one.
That is a huge benefit for human safety in general. This is just super exciting to me. It’s something that you won’t even see. It’s definitely underneath the hood of anything that you do. I think that metal 3D printing is already being embraced in commercial industry and in aerospace among others. Obviously, GE is, as he said, the poster child for this. It’s obviously working or they wouldn’t be putting that level of investment into it.
I’m excited about it. I’m excited about all it affords. I’m also excited about what it shows, the potential. Metal 3D printing, people, we’ve discovered over time, is a little bit dismissive of plastics. But so much of our world is plastic. I think that desktop plastic 3D printing has actually not done a good job of presenting what it can do in a good way. Mainly because we have a lot of junk content and then junk printing or unreliable printing in terms of it doesn’t reproduce the same way every time. It’s not the point of it. That wasn’t the point of it. The point of it was to make it accessible to everybody’s desktop. We would be willing to put up with hacking it in order to make it work for that price.
The reality is, is that the future of that has to change and it’s going to change. When it does, plastic 3D printing is going to come along. It just needs time. Metal has been working at this longer. To me, it’s a combination of things. It’s the quality of content needs to improve, but it’s also, in order to change the perceptions and win the hearts and minds of consumers and I guess lay people, there’s some marketing effort that has to happen here to help change those paradigms and help people realize you already are buying a ton of things in your life and using all sorts of product that are made of plastic already. The benefits of a 3D printed plastic part is this or this or this. It’s a combination of things.
To me, it’s that you shouldn’t be selling the benefits. It should just be a side by side comparison. Do you want a thing that looks like that or a thing that looks like this? That this is 3D printed. It doesn’t matter. It’s just cool. It’s cooler than anything you’ve seen before. It functions better than anything you’ve seen before. When you put that kind of effort into product, then it’s working.
That’s the case here with this more mature metal market, is that they’ve managed to do that. They said, “We have needs to do things that we weren’t able to do before. We’re consolidating parts. We’re saving safety risks. We’re doing all of these things. By the way, we’re starting to learn of all of the design benefits that can happen now that this is our machine that we’re designing on.” Now, they’re getting to that stage at which they’re creating new forms, new functions, new things that they never imagined. We’re not there yet in plastic 3D printing. It’s just not there yet.
I really loved what he said. Clearly, he’s a passionate guy and he has a tremendous amount of knowledge, not just about the technology industry but about business as well. Here, he completely recognizes and rightly said, in reference to jewelry I think he was saying it, that 3D printing, the additive manufacturing is ideal for organic forms. He’s right. It is. He’s sort of speaking to me right there because I personally am more passionate about creating organic forms than forms and structures that could be made in another manufacturing process as well.
I think his same three things that he highlighted as being why metal 3D printing has such an opportunity are the same reasons that we have opportunities in plastic. Complexity of parts, being able to do that complexity of parts. Having a complex or multi step or a lot of hand done parts and processing and being able to shift that.
Then the design. Designs that you’ve never been able to achieve in any method before. When you look at those three things … sometimes that design that you’ve never been able to achieve before is a mass customize. We jumped to that as being this great benefit to 3D printing. But the reality is, it’s just an aside. It’s, “I can do that now so I should offer it.”
It’s really not the driving force between it. Those other three things are the reason why you should be having 3D print evaluations of your businesses, your product lines and where you’re going to go with it and how it’s going to disrupt and change your future as a business, as a manufacturer, as a product offering. It’s super exciting.
I found Tuan on LinkedIn. As we mentioned, he’s agreed to let you follow him and do things. I follow him on The Pulse. That’s the LinkedIn post. It’s like their blog way of doing it. You can just click follow. You don’t have to be friends with him or anything like that. You don’t have to be connected with him. You can just click follow.
If you go into The Pulse and you start reading some of the things that he’s posted there, you can just follow him straight from there. The articles that he’s written, they’re really interesting and they really start to talk about what things are going on in the metal 3D printing world. It’s been keeping me up to date over the last few months that I’ve been connected to him. I just had to invite him to the show after everything that shook out with GE and he made an announcement of shifting jobs at that moment. It caught my eye. I’m so glad to have him on the show and hope you enjoyed that conversation on desktop 3D printing in metal.
Tuan TranPham is one of the few 3D Printing Evangelists who has spent last 12 years working for
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