By Eric Peterson | Jul 20, 2020
Additive manufacturing of metal parts
"There's a big restructuring with the supply chain right now, and it plays into our favor," says Sand, one of 3DEO's three co-founders. "We're seeing from our existing customers more orders and a lot of interest in manufacturing in the U.S."
It follows that the company is moving from 10,000 square feet into a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing space that will increase capacity by a factor of 10, says Sand. The move will be complete by August 2020.
Sand says 3D printing caught him "hook, line, and sinker" before 3DEO's beginnings. "I got my MBA from UCLA, so I'm kind of the business guy," he says. "I met my two partners when they were halfway through their PhDs at the University of Southern California."
Sand says his co-founders were researching metal feedstocks and applications in "one of the top 3D-printing labs in the country" at USC. "They were basically hacking 2D printers, like Epson printers, and turning them into binder-jet printers," he says. "It was pretty amazing to see what they were doing."
Additive manufacturing was already a good fit for prototyping along with high-value, low-volume production, but Sand notes, "There was a conspicuous absence of success in the high-volume and low-price-point market, which is the vast majority of the market for metal components. "
3DEO initially positioned itself as a hardware manufacturer that would sell 3D printers before pivoting to contract manufacturing of stainless steel parts. He and his co-founders saw an opportunity to compete with CNC and metal injection molding (MIM) operations in the U.S. and Asia.
"This evolution happened over the course of the first year of business," says Sand, noting that the transformation took about two years. "Getting to an end-use production part is much more than just a metal 3D printer. It's actually a full end-to-end production line."
Beyond 3D printers, the 2019 launch of the new model required powder-handling solutions and secondary processes in order to meet the needs of high-volume manufacturing. The platform involves robotic automation and capabilities for heat treatment and CNC machining with "incredibly tight tolerances," says Sand. "Machining additively-made parts is very different, because there's a lot of variation from part to part."
The end result fuses the best of both the additive and subtractive worlds, he notes, as 3DEO's machinists can make needed modifications to printed parts. "It's a one-stop shop for finished metal parts."
Sand likens the company's turnkey manufacturing platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS) for on-demand production of metal parts. "We're trying to do for manufacturing what AWS did for the Internet with server infrastructure," he says. "We're building the business to scale with software."
3DEO's technology "is a distant cousin of binder jetting," says Sand, describing a process that utilizes powdered metal to print a 3D part. A proprietary spray head essentially deposits metal powder layer by layer and binds the layers together in a way that makes for improvements in strengths, yields, and tolerances.
Using exclusively 17-4 PH stainless, the process makes for an end-use part that's "basically on par with wrought metal," says Sand. "It's on par with CNC machining, and much better than MIM, but you get it with all the benefits of additive, which is flexibility in manufacturing, so the ability to scale up and down based on your demand and immediate turnaround times."
There are other advantages, he adds. "Breakout of parts is a good example of this. When you look at metal AM [additive manufacturing] technologies and technology companies, they're usually focused just on the printer, and they don't think too much about breaking out the parts after. It's on their users of the printers to have to figure that out for themselves. That's a big part of the cost structure, breaking out parts and getting them ready for use in production."
How big? "GE's on record saying over 50 percent of the final part cost is in post-processing," says Sand.
3DEO is very competitive on price with traditional manufacturing processes for "a tennis ball-sized part or smaller," with complex geometries. "If it's a simple geometry and can be cone in one setup on a 3-axis CNC machine, we're typically not competitive," says Sand. "If it's small and complex, we can be very competitive."
He points to another selling point: no tooling. "With metal injection molding, you've got tooling up front, and that can be $50,000 to $100,000 and you've got a six-month lead time."
It's a good match for customers in the medical, aerospace, and defense industries, he adds. 3DEO has also worked on parts for consumer products, including Ergo Kiwi, an ergonomic knife for architects.
The year 2019 saw a 600 percent increase in revenue and a 394 percent increase in volume, thile the employee count nearly doubled. The company hit the milestone of 150,000 parts shipped in June 2020.
Challenges: Being able to meet high-volume demand. Sand says 3DEO had to decline a recent multi-million-dollar job. "Capacity was the only reason," he explains.
With the move into the larger facility, however, 3DEO has space to add hundreds of printers and scale "seamlessly," Sand adds. "Turning around a 2,500-piece order of seven components in three weeks will be the new normal for us."
Opportunities: As more than half of metal parts are made from 17-4 PH stainless steel, Sand sees a narrow materials menu as a strength for 3DEO. "When you look at our capacity, there's way more than we can bite off right now just with 17-4 PH," he says. That said, 3DEO is exploring other metals for the future.
"I'm seeing medical devices," says Sand of the market with the most immediate potential for 3DEO. "That market is ideal for what we're doing." Robotics and instruments are specific areas he sees as a match for the company's capabilities.
Needs: Capital. "As a growing company, we're always capital-constrained, so we're raising our next round of funding the second half of 2020," says Sand.