Now that 3D printers are turning out homes, jet-fighter components, handguns and bicycles, mining and metal companies are making a play to provide the raw materials.

Demand for specialised metal powders to feed the machines has almost tripled over four years through 2013.

Suppliers – including BHP Billiton Ltd and Baosteel Group Corp, the owner of China’s biggest publicly-traded steelmaker – are backing research into 3D printing technology, which can produce components faster and cheaper than traditional manufacturing.

The systems “print” objects by laying down thin layers of metal, plastic or ceramic, one atop another, to create a three-dimensional finished product.

As the technology improves, larger and faster printers will drive up demand for the raw materials, said Pablos Holman, a Seattle-based inventor.

With key patents for 3D printing technology expiring this year, he expects the machines to become more common in the manufacturing industry.

“It’s pretty easy to see that you’re going to be able to print a house, and that it’s going to be different and better that what we are making now, the old-fashioned way,” said Holman, who has advised MakerBot Industries LLC, a printer maker acquired last year by Stratasys Ltd.

“As far as the mining industry is concerned, somebody is going to get out ahead of it.”

The technology is starting to move into factories. Nike Inc offers 3D printed football cleats and General Electric Co is using them to make jet engine nozzles.

Airbus Group NV used its first printed component in March, a crew seat for an A310 jet, and envisages using the technology for numerous other cabin components.

Eventually, entire airliners including the engines may emerge from 3D printers, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Lockheed Martin Corp, the world’s biggest defense contractor, estimated in May that some complex satellite components can be produced 48% cheaper and 43% faster with 3D printing.

The process may eventually reduce production costs by as much as 80%, chairman and chief executive officer Marillyn Hewson, said in June.

As demand for metal powders increases and producers refine their own manufacturing processes, the cost of components made with 3D printers may eventually be competitive with traditional finished metal products, said Fred Truong, a Melbourne-based analyst with Bell Potter Securities Ltd.

“The reduction in production costs could enable titanium to compete with certain steel and aluminum products,” said Truong.

The 3D printing process begins with a computer that converts an image of a three-dimensional object into thin, two-dimensional cross sections. Then the printer gets to work.

An automated roller spreads a layer of metal powder across a platform, and a high-power laser beam fuses or melts the particles together. That creates a single sliver of the final product, and the process repeats, adding one layer after another until it’s complete.

While there’s strong interest in the technology, demand is small and it may take years for it to become widely used in commercial manufacturing.

About US$530 million (RM1.68 billion) was spent on metals, plastics and ceramics used in 3D printers last year, up from US$218 million in 2009, said Terry Wohlers, president of industry consultant Wohlers Associates, Inc. Demand for metals increased to US$32.6 million from about US$12 million.

Sales of 3D printers that can use metals jumped 76% last year, outpacing total demand for the systems, Wohlers said by phone from Fort Collins, Colorado.

The entire market for 3D printed goods may rise to as much as US$550 billion a year by 2025, McKinsey Global Institute said in a report last year.

That’s attracting mining and metals companies.

BHP, the world’s biggest miner, owns 6.85% of Metalysis Ltd, a UK-based producer of titanium powder that’s been used to create 3D printed automotive components.

Iluka Resources Ltd, the world’s second-largest titanium dioxide producer, paid £12.2 million (RM64.2 million) in February for an 18.3% stake in the UK based metal-powder supplier.

Baosteel, is backing a 3D research project in Australia. Sandvik AB, a Stockholm-based provider of mining equipment, alloys and metal powders, has about 15 engineers investigating potential new applications of 3D printing.

GE’s aviation unit will open next year a US$125 million centre in Alabama that will use 3D printers to manufacture fuel nozzles for jet engines.

Some large mining companies remain skeptical that 3D printing will drive a new market for metals, said Xinhua Wu, a professor of materials engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, who has worked on the production of 3D printed aerospace parts with Paris-based Safran SA.

Metal powders produced for aerospace or medical applications must adhere to strict specifications which can take as long as a decade to meet, and it may be five to 10 years before there is a sufficient market for consumer products that can be printed with lower quality powders, she said.

“That’s why people are not jumping on this straight away, and not investing in it straight away.”

Rio Tinto Group, the world’s biggest producer of titanium dioxide feedstock, may look at how the new market develops, Sydney-based Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Matthew Hope said. “They certainly wouldn’t be first mover.”

Much of the technology can be traced to the University of Texas at Austin, where mechanical engineering students were experimenting in the 1980s with 3D printers they named Betsy, Godzilla and Bambi.

A key patent covering the technology expired this year, according to Wohlers. That will lower prices and open up the field to wider use.

“It’s mind boggling what the future could hold for the use of 3D printing,” said Andrew Spinks, executive director of Sydney-based Kibaran Resources Ltd, which is developing graphite projects and has signed an agreement with a 3D printer maker to establish a joint research venture.

“Potentially, it’s going to be a major use of commodities.”

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