Metal PBF – Is A Bomb Shelter Really Necessary?

Metal powder bed fusion printers safely produce life-altering medical devices and innovative industrial components. Operations managers must look beyond the metal PBF printer’s price to understand the real cost of ownership.

Powder bed fusion (PBF) is a 3D printing process in which thermal energy selectively fuses regions of a powder bed. A laser, electron beam, or other energy source sinters a region of the powder layer that has previously been laid down.[1] The resulting parts may have finely detailed and complex geometries, parts that often cannot be made with any other technology. Metal PBF enables organizations to create new business models, such as the distributed production of small quantities of new and replacement parts.

According to the Wohlers Report 2020[2], an estimated 2,327 metal AM machines were sold in 2019, with an average selling price of $467,635. However, the average is only for the device. When you add the cost of facility preparations, the investment required to properly install and safely operate a metal PBF printer may be as much as its purchase price.

Rule of Thumb?

Given the wide range of metal PBF printer prices, which the Senvol database indicates ranges from less than $50,000 to more than $1,000,000, and your planned uses, there is no “rule of thumb” for estimating the cost for facility preparation and safety equipment. Operations managers who are budgeting the purchase of one (or more) metal PBF printers must consider these factors:

  • The facility: Is it a retrofit or new construction? Are sensors to monitor air quality and other conditions required? How will the atmosphere (humidity, temperature) be controlled and ventilated? What fire and explosion prevention systems are needed?
  • The materials used, handled, and stored: How will reactive and potentially explosive materials such as aluminum or titanium powder be controlled? How will inert gases be handled?
  • The unused or spent materials: Will exposed powder be blended with virgin material, and how? How will spent powder be stored and prepared for shipment to a disposal or reclamation site?
  • Personal protective equipment: Are simple gloves and masks or full-body suits with air filtration masks required? How does that impact operator use of equipment controls?
  • The metal PBF printers: Will the manufacturer or a third-party provide integrated material handling systems? 

These factors are in addition to the fundamental facility preparations that you expect when installing any new piece of equipment: doorway openings, floor supports, electrical wiring, lighting, HVAC, and gas lines.

Insights

I recently spoke with Paul Bates, Additive Manufacturing Lead Project Engineer at ASTM International and a past president of AMUG (the Additive Manufacturing Users Group). Paul has been involved with almost every form of 3D printing over the past 20 years, making quality parts while assuring everyone’s health and safety involved in the operations.

As we discussed metal PBF facility preparation, Paul’s first comment was not about the building’s size or ventilation or material handling. Instead, he made the point that eventually the local fire marshal must approve your operation, whether there is a change of use to an existing building or you have erected a new facility. After all, the local emergency services are concerned about putting out a fire or an explosion and the safety of their first responders.

Paul made the point that, if the fire marshal is not fully aware of additive and they learn you are working with metal powder, “they may require you build a bomb shelter.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but his point is well made – make sure the local authorities understand your metal PBF processes, the materials you will be using, and how you will safely handle them. 

Review these sources for more information on metal PBF facility safety:

PAS 6001:2020 “Factors to be considered in making and assessing the business case for additive manufacturing and 3D printing – Guide;” Dr. Phil Reeves, Technical Author; BSI Standards Limited 2020 (free download)

ASTM WK73227 “New Guide for Additive Manufacturing — Investigation for Additive Manufacturing (AM) Facility Safety Management” (under development)

Managing Safety in Additive Manufacturing Facilities; Underwriters Laboratories (free download)

Additive Manufacturing Safety Certificate Course; ASTM – Paul Bates, Instructor (early bird discount through February 9th)

Let us help you look outside the box – whether a user who is learning about 3D printing, convincing management to invest in additive manufacturing or a vendor developing new products and services, we are here to enable you.


[1] Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, 2019; Pete Basiliere and Michael Shanler; Gartner

[2] Wohlers Report 2020, pages 98-99