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AM Material Pricing

March 15, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 07:11

Most would agree that materials for additive manufacturing (AM), also referred to as 3D printing, are expensive. As a rule of thumb, polymers for industrial AM systems are in the range of $100 to $300 per kg (2.2 lbs), although they can be lower or higher. This pricing is dramatically more than equivalent materials used for injection molding and other plastics processing, which are typically $2 to $4 per kg, depending on the type and quantity of plastic. It is our belief that AM material pricing will decline as competition heats up and AM patents continue to expire.

Two recent developments could drive prices downward. One is the October 2013 introduction of the Freeformer machine from Arburg, a large German manufacturer of injection molding machines. The 3D printer deposits droplets of thermoplastic using the same inexpensive plastic pellets used for injection molding. The second advance is the development of a large machine by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Incorporated. It can produce parts at a rate of 4.5 to 9 kg per hour—orders of magnitude faster than most AM systems. And, it also uses low-cost injection molding plastics in pellet form.

The expiration of key patents will also impact material prices. Foundation patents associated with FDM from Stratasys expired years ago, and this is what allowed the development and commercialization of countless low-cost 3D printers, many for less than $2,000. Materials for these machines are available for less than $20 per kg. As these machines improve, they will put pressure on the more expensive machines, especially for very basic design, concept modeling, and prototyping applications. Meanwhile, the final selective laser sintering patent at the University of Texas at Austin will expire in mid June 2014. It is also a foundation patent, which is expected to create a flurry of activity around the development of low-cost laser sintering systems and materials.

Expensive AM materials are not a problem for companies that use machines for small quantities of parts. However, with production quantities, the pricing is not only a problem, it’s a “show stopper.” We believe the high AM material prices will largely be resolved through competitive pressures. However, it could become painful to the companies that have been enjoying the high margins on these materials, some for more than two decades.