The possibilities are endless when it comes to 3D metal printing, according to James Scarlett, co-owner of Scarlett Inc.
The Grand Rapids firm recently signed a distribution agreement with 3D Systems, of Rock Hill, S.C., to represent the company’s 3D printing products, also known as additive manufacturing, in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
As a result of that agreement, Scarlett has installed a ProX300 direct metal printer in its showroom at 4355 Airwest Drive SE.
In direct metal printing, a high-powered laser welds fine metallic powders layer by layer, building a fully dense metal part directly from 3D CAD (computer-aided design) data.
Scarlett plans to focus on selling production-grade 3D printers to the tool and die, aerospace, automotive, medical and furniture industries.
“3D printing has grown from a method of rapid prototyping to a viable means of production for low- to mid-volume or highly customized parts,” said Mike McLean, director of additive manufacturing at Scarlett.
McLean joined Scarlett at the end of 2014 specifically to focus on building the company’s 3D business.
His experience with 3D printing comes from time spent in the furniture industry, which has been quick to adapt the new technology for development projects.
McLean said while some industries have quickly taken advantage of the benefits of 3D printing, others have been slower to come on board — manufacturers, for example.
“I saw how largely underserved the industrial applications were,” he said. “Our long-term goal is to target more of the industrial applications.”
His job is to help convert more manufacturers to 3D printing by highlighting return on investment and other benefits of the technology.
According to Scarlett Inc., the additive manufacturing industry is projected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2012 to more than $17 billion by 2020, with most analysts pointing to the production-parts segment as the largest avenue for growth.
Cost savings is a major reason for this projection, as is the ability to print parts that can’t be created through traditional tool-and-die processes.
McLean recently printed a turbine for a company that he said would have cost his customer up to $350,000 to produce using the traditional process.
“I was able to print it in an hour with no tooling expenses,” he said.
Purchasing a 3D printer is a big investment, however, so to help interested but hesitant companies make the decision of whether a 3D printer is right for them, Scarlett has set up an equipment showroom to demonstrate various products’ abilities.
“I think there are a lot of people who do what we do, who just hand out brochures and say, ‘Hey, pick one’ — but they don’t have a lot of working knowledge of the equipment and what it can and can’t do,” Scarlett said.
“By having it here and running it, and having Mike, he’s able to make parts on a daily basis — he’s got that firsthand working knowledge of how the machine works.”
“It’s important to be able to service your customers after you make the sale. If you don’t run or operate the machines, you can’t be the first line of defense.”
McLean said Scarlett selected 3D Systems as its partner because the company offers a wide variety of options with its 3D printing technology.
“Their machine was the most versatile metal machine,” he said. “We have 15 different alloys that have been developed to run on this machine.
“The thing that really sets this product apart from the competition is that it has an open parameter setting. That means you can go in and you can tweak every single parameter that is used to process. If there is a material that is not yet in the palette, you can develop it.”
Scarlett said 3D printing also offers sustainability benefits to companies in the form of less discarded material and digital inventory.
“If you look at conventional manufacturing, you’re chipping away or removing material. Often it does get recycled, but with additive manufacturing, you are only using what you need,” he said.
3D printing also offers opportunities for more localized manufacturing.
“The big story with sustainability is the localization of manufacturing,” Scarlett said. “If I live in Washington and I crash my car and I need a new part, I don’t need to send away to a warehouse in the Midwest and have it trucked over. I can download the electronic file and print the part. There is a lot of headway in the automotive industry.”
Scarlett said 3D printing hits all aspects of the triple bottom line.
“It builds revenue by creating parts that weren’t previously capable of being created or at a scale that wasn’t approachable before, so you avoid all the tooling expense for lower-run parts. Also, you don’t have those inventory carrying costs: Because your inventory is digital, it exists on a computer and you print it as needed. So you don’t have warehouses full of stuff you are going to get taxed on at the end of the year. There is big savings there.”
Scarlett Inc. plans to offer several demonstration open houses this year to show off the ProX300. McLean said some of the demonstrations will be industry specific, while others will be more broadly focused.
The company also is offering a portal through its website where customers or potential customers can submit a CAD file and receive a quote with a pricing algorithm.