The Promise of Lower-Cost Metal 3D Printing: 3 Views

Representatives of companies using the new Desktop Metal system—Caterpillar, Jabil and Lowes—describe their expected applications for this capability.


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Posted on May 10 from Rapid + TCT:

As part of a keynote presentation yesterday at the Rapid + TCT event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Desktop Metal introduced representatives from three different companies using its new FDM-based system for 3D printing metal parts. Because the Desktop Metal system can print metal parts at significantly lower equipment cost than what has previously been accepted, it potentially changes the economics of metal additive manufacturing in some applications. Three panelists—representing Caterpillar, Jabil and Lowes—each offered different expectations as to what this might mean for their companies.

Don Jones, director of global aftermarket parts strategy, spoke for Caterpillar. The question for his organization, he says, is "How can we use this technology to stock fewer parts?" Using AM to make aftermarket parts for Caterpillar equipment on an as-needed basis, instead of making them in advance and storing them, could eliminate considerable warehouse space and shipping expense. So far, however, "metal parts [largely] have not been profitable to print." A solution such as the Desktop Metal system potentially changes that.

John Dulchinos is VP of digital manufacturing for Jabil, a large contract manufacturer and supply chain management company earning about $20 billion annually. The company is already applying AM; because additive is "toolingless" manufacturing, it enhances Jabil's ability to speed time to market and provide for cost-effective production of small lots. Low-cost metal AM is "game changing for us," Dulchinos says. "It will allow us to bring 3D printing to a whole section of business it couldn't get to before."

Kyle Nel with Lowes, the home improvement store chain, offered perhaps the most far-off application of the metal 3D printing technology. He is executive director of the company's Innovation Labs. His group is exploring the question of what it might mean to bring this capability into stores, for the use of customers. For application in a retail context such as this, he says, the system would have to become much easier to use and would have to advance in various other ways as well—it is not ready for this application today. But if it could get to this point, the promise for Lowes is huge: What if customers could come to a store to have the hardware they need precisely printed? And what might Lowes then be able to do with all the space freed up by hardware items that no longer have to be stocked and displayed on shelves?

Rapid + TCT is the leading North American trade show focused on 3D printing technology. Additive Manufacturing's Stephanie Hendrixson and I are both at the show.  To see some of what we're seeing there, check out her Twitter feed and mine.