After surviving the darkness, there will always be a dawn, which may be the biggest expectation of the domestic laser industry for 2023. After more than 10 years of rapid growth, the domestic laser industry suddenly encountered bottlenecks. As the main field of laser applications, material processing has been experiencing sluggish market demand in recent years, coupled with increasingly fierce price competition, and the profit margin of laser enterprises has been continuously compressed. Standing at a new time node, the domestic laser industry urgently needs to find a new blue ocean market.
Key national support, emerging in the next 100 billion market
Compared to reduced material manufacturing technologies such as laser cutting, additive technology represented by 3D printing has always been popular, but it always appears to be very “niche”, especially in industrial applications. From the perspective of development history, 3D printing technology originated in the United States at the end of the 19th century, matured and widely used in the late 1980s, with the rapid development of metal material 3D printing technology.
Metal 3D printing technology, as the most cutting-edge and promising technology in the entire 3D printing system, is an important development direction of advanced manufacturing technology, and is gradually gaining large-scale applications in aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, medical, general industry, and other fields. In the past 30 years, China’s metal 3D printing technology, especially equipment technology, has made rapid progress.
Metal 3D printing emerged in European and American countries. China has been conducting research on metal 3D printing technology since the mid-1990s, with the focus on energy deposition (DED) and powder bed fusion (PBF). Among them, Northwest University of Technology, Beijing Aerospace University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, South China University of Technology, Tsinghua University, and others have conducted a large amount of research. In 1997, Northwest University of Technology conducted the “Research on the Microstructure and Properties of Metal Powder Laser Solidification”, which is the first officially established scientific research project in China. In 2012, the research achievements of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the field of DED-L won the first prize of the National Technological Invention Award. In 2017, the first material standard in the field of metal 3D printing in China (GB/T 34508-2017) was formulated
According to the latest report from SmarTech, a well-known additive manufacturing industry market data and consulting service provider, it is expected that by 2031, metal 3D printing technology will produce more than $75 billion of components annually. Due to the strong compensating effect of metal additive manufacturing on supply chain shortages, the trend of emphasizing the adoption of this technology and increasing investment will not change, and the overall market will continue to develop rapidly.
Recently, the Ministry of Science and Technology’s “14th Five Year Plan” National Key R&D Plan “Additive Manufacturing and Laser Manufacturing” key special project has been announced, focusing on refractory metal material additive manufacturing, ultra-fast laser manufacturing, and other technical directions, focusing on the entire chain of basic theory and cutting-edge technology, core functional components, key technologies and equipment, and typical application demonstration, to promote China’s additive manufacturing technology to achieve world-class overall, Basically achieving the overall goal of global leadership.
In addition, many national plans, such as the “14th Five Year Plan” for Intelligent Manufacturing Development, the “Additive Manufacturing Industry Development Action Plan (2017-2020)”, the “National Additive Manufacturing Industry Development Promotion Plan (2015-2016)”, and the “Additive Manufacturing Standard Pilot Action Plan (2020-2022)”, explicitly support the development of the additive manufacturing industry. With the continuous breakthroughs in key technologies and the continuous improvement of industrial chain supporting facilities, additive manufacturing represented by metal 3D printing will become the next important direction in the field of intelligent manufacturing.
Optical fiber laser as an ideal heat source for metal 3D printing
Additive manufacturing technology uses CAD design software to create 3D models and convert them into STL files in a standardized format for additive manufacturing. The system divides the part into multiple layers in a direction that is easy to process on a computer. Finally, relying on specialized printing equipment, various materials such as metal powder, resin, ceramic powder, etc. are used to accumulate, stack, and bond layer by layer, ultimately forming the entire part. During the entire process, the selection of heat sources is crucial for the processing effect.
After years of development, laser beams have become the most mainstream heat source for metal 3D printing. Compared to electron beam and micro beam plasma, laser beam has the advantages of thin spot, low cost, and being able to orient to designated material locations. It can achieve instantaneous melting and solidification of metal materials, meeting the requirements of weld bead bonding and part forming.
Metal 3D printing lasers have undergone several stages of development, mainly CO2 lasers, YAG lasers, and fiber lasers. The CO2 laser itself has a long output wavelength and a low absorptivity of metal materials, so the power of CO2 lasers used in early metal printing was often several thousand watts. YAG laser can output 1.06 μ M wavelength, high coupling efficiency with metals, good processing performance, and significantly higher effective power than CO2 lasers. As fiber lasers begin to be commercially available on a large scale, their costs are further reduced. With their advantages such as ease of integration, higher electro-optical conversion rates, and more stable performance, they have become the most mainstream heat source for metal 3D printing.
The metal 3D printing process mainly relies on the laser thermal effect, melting and forming metal powder layer by layer, and finally completing the part processing through layer by layer accumulation. During the processing process, the number of printing layers of components is usually large, and the printing time is very long. Therefore, the requirements for laser power stability are very high. In addition, laser beam quality and spot size are also crucial to printing accuracy. Therefore, in the early stage of industrial development, metal 3D printing lasers mainly relied on foreign imports.
In recent years, with the significant improvement in the power level and reliability of domestic fiber laser products, it has been able to meet the requirements of metal 3D printing applications. Taking the common selective laser melt forming (SLM) as an example, the average power requirement for fiber lasers is approximately between 200W and 1000W. As a domestic fiber laser head manufacturer, Jiept has fully covered the 200W-40000 W range in continuous fiber lasers, and can provide a variety of options for metal 3D printing light sources.
In terms of products, Jiepu continuous fiber laser can conduct real-time monitoring and alarm prompts on the operating status of the laser through control interfaces and standard software, and can collect and record operating data. The laser is designed with water cooled cooling and a shelf mounted chassis. It has many advantages, such as high electro-optical conversion efficiency, low energy consumption, compact structure, free of adjustment and maintenance, flexible optical fiber conductive output, and convenient for integrated use by customers. It provides an ideal light source choice for metal 3D printing.
In order to achieve better 3D printing effects and adapt to market demand, Jeep has specially introduced a high configuration version of 500W/1000W laser for the 3D printing industry, and has conducted performance optimization to enable it to be better applied to 3D printing applications, and can be customized according to customer process requirements.
The Jept high configuration laser improves the driving ability of the state signal load, can drive higher current relays, improve the response speed of analog signals, and greatly compress the resulting optical delay; Improve beam quality to ensure M2 ≤ 1.1; Improve power stability, with long-term power stability reaching less than 1%; Adding a network port function makes communication control of the laser more convenient; Expanding the adjustable range of modulation frequency to 50KHz makes it more adaptable to different application scenarios.
From the perspective of application fields, metal 3D printing was initially mainly used in the aerospace field. With the further popularization of other application fields, domestic fiber lasers will also gain more application space, thereby promoting the continuous development of the industry.
Metal 3D printing gradually starts the process of localization
Despite the impact of the epidemic in recent years, global metal 3D printing continues to maintain a high-speed growth trend. According to data from SmarTech Analysis, the global metal additive manufacturing market size in 2019 was US $3.3 billion, and the market size will expand to US $11 billion by 2024, with a CAGR of 27.2% from 2019 to 2024.
From the perspective of industrial chain distribution, upstream metal materials have higher value and higher production barriers. Metallic materials are usually metal powders, mainly including titanium alloys, cobalt chromium alloys, stainless steel, aluminum alloys, and other high-temperature alloys. They are mainly used in aerospace, military, automotive, and other fields, with very high requirements for material properties. Currently, there are relatively few domestic high-end metal powder manufacturers available, mainly relying on imports. On the contrary, in terms of equipment, domestic manufacturers are accelerating the realization of substitution.
Metal 3D printing equipment mainly includes laser, galvanometer, motherboard, DLP optical engine, scanner, and other components. From the perspective of value ratio, lasers generally account for more than 20% of the overall equipment cost, and as the equipment upgrades, the quantity and quality of lasers installed in the same 3D printer will also increase, with a higher value ratio. From the perspective of current domestic metal 3D printing equipment manufacturers’ products, based on stability and quality considerations, lasers are generally imported brands, and there is a large space for domestic substitution.
From the perspective of product output power, domestic fiber laser products have achieved catching up with and surpassing foreign products, basically in the same echelon, and have achieved most substitution for foreign products in the field of thin plate cutting applications. In recent years, as the domestic laser industry has entered a new stage, domestic manufacturers have become increasingly concerned about product quality, continuously increasing research and development investment, and gradually opening domestic substitution in high-end applications.
Just like the development of Jeep for many years, no matter how the market changes, with the strong stability of its products, it has found its own path in the high-end manufacturing field, from the anti superseding of MOPA fiber lasers against foreign brands, to entering the global supply chain of head phone manufacturers, and to becoming a supplier of power battery head manufacturers, which is also a good illustration of its product quality. With the further development of the domestic metal 3D printing industry, Jeep will also accelerate the promotion of domestic substitution in this blue ocean market.
Currently, China is in a critical period of industrial transformation and upgrading, with the emergence of new technologies, industries, and models driving the sustained development of the manufacturing industry. In recent years, 3D printing has gradually become a core technology in the development and production of complex structural components in aerospace, automotive manufacturing, biomedical, and other fields. In the face of increasingly inward-looking challenges, metal 3D printing is expected to become another potential market for domestic fiber lasers!