3D printing was set to revolutionise manufacturing and herald an era of personalised – print your own – objects and products. Additive manufacturing (AM) has been developing for the past decade yet, seems to have moved into niche product development and the home hobbyist market. Silicon UK asks what is the current state of AM, and are we on the cusp of major changes that could disrupt manufacturing as we know it today?

Their report Sculpteo considers the latest trends in AM. Their key findings include, 80% of respondents have used 3D printing for more than two years (+7% vs 2019), and 31% even use it daily. In terms of investments, 33% of the respondents expect up to a 50% increase this year, more conservative than the previous year. The study shows that nearly 30% of users invested more than $100k in 3D printing this year, up 5% than in 2019.

Also, 68% of respondents are eager to use additive manufacturing for more applications, and 44% will start using new 3D printing technologies. How can additive manufacturing accelerate its adoption? New materials and reliable technologies are demanded by more than 55% of the industry. To accelerate the adoption of 3D Printing in any manufacturing ecosystem, machine capabilities and consistency of 3D printed parts must also develop for more than 80% of users.

What factors will limit the adoption of 3D printing?

[SOURCE: Sculpteo]

Seen as a gamechanger as the technology matures, AM is increasingly on the strategic development roadmaps for a number of businesses. What was seen as a novelty with limited applications; every business sector is now actively aware of the technology and is also pursuing practical initiatives.

According to EY “South Korea and China could reflect their more dynamic economic development in recent years, compared with that of the mature economies of Western Europe and the US. Asian businesses may also have recognised the potential in using emerging technologies to build a new competitive advantage, in place of their previous dependence on cost leadership.”

How AM is being used is also interesting to focus upon. Using the technology for spare part production is rapidly expanding. Again, AM is finding its way into manufacturing processes as a stage, where businesses can apply personalisation to some aspects of product design. A good example is the automotive industry that has been actively embracing AM for several years. AM has also, of course, been used to manufacture PPE as the COVID-19 crisis has continued. Healthcare is a sector where AM could have a massive and transformative impact.

The EY survey shows that over a third (34%) of all companies believe that AM will become an additional production technology, with only 12% thinking it will replace other technologies. From an industry perspective, aerospace companies are most inclined to believe that AM will become an additional technology, followed by chemicals and life sciences businesses, respectively.

On-demand AM

Speaking to Silicon UK, Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA at automation parts supplier EU Automation said: “One of the most interesting novel applications of AM is in the production of spare parts or replacement parts. The underlying idea is that instead of ordering spare parts from a supplier or from the original equipment manufacturers (OEM), manufacturers can simply 3D print them in house. If this were possible, it could have a huge impact in all sectors of manufacturing — it would eliminate the need for large component warehouses and would even solve the issue of component obsolescence, an increasingly difficult challenge for manufacturers.”

Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA at automation parts supplier EU Automation.

Ballinger continued: “However, the current limitations of AM techniques mean that for the time being, this approach is not convenient for the great majority of manufacturers. Sourcing components the old-fashioned way, that is through a supplier, is still by far the fastest and most reliable way. However, it will be interesting to see how AM will evolve in this sense.”

Indeed, IEEE Transmitter reveals spare part AM could be embraced in the healthcare sector as nearly two in three (58%) respondents to their survey in the UK are at least ‘very comfortable’ with allowing a properly tested and fully functional 3D printed heart to be implanted in their child if needed, though almost a fifth (17%) are not comfortable at all. Globally, around one in ten (11%) respondents are not comfortable, allowing a 3D printed heart to be implanted in their child.

Roberto Saracco, IEEE senior member and senior lecturer in technology foresight at the University of Trento has made the following comments on the benefits and challenges associated with 3D organ printing:

“The benefit of a 3D printed organ is that it can be sized to fit the patient and does not create issues with the immune system (all materials used are bio-compatible and where cells are needed these are cultivated from patient’s own cell). In principle, there can be unlimited availability of 3D printed organs, and they can be manufactured quickly. That means no more waiting lists for transplants and fewer bio-compatibility issues.

“The process is very similar to the one adopted in additive manufacturing to produce engines or other parts – but some of the materials used may be different, such as the use of living cells. This clearly imposes some differences in the way the material is ejected through the printer nozzles and the type of glue used, to have the deposited material stay in place. In the end, however, the biggest challenge is on the material side rather than on the printing side.”

And Brian Houle, vice president, EMEA at Markforged – a provider of connected metal and carbon fibre 3D printers comments: “It’s remarkable to see how companies are leveraging the capabilities of additive manufacturing to transform their businesses. Even in my two years at Markforged, I’ve seen the conversations with customers evolve from reducing per-part costs and shortening lead-times, to discussions about taking control of their supply chains, reducing inventory, and being more responsive to their internal and external customers.

Brian Houle, vice president, EMEA at Markforged.

“We’ve all seen real-life examples of how what was previously considered highly optimised supply chains, were fundamentally disrupted by this pandemic,” Houle continued. “Without the capabilities to 3D print strong and precise parts in their locations around the world, many global manufacturers would have seen devastating disruptions to their production lines. We’ve seen our customers printing parts from home that were nearly impossible to procure through traditional job shops during the early stages of the pandemic.”

There is also the question of intellectual property rights when AM is considered. Patent attorney Thomas Prock, Partner at IP firm Marks & Clerk explained to Silicon UK: “3D printing has the potential to make Intellectual Property (IP) infringement easier because it removes the technological barriers to infringement. Consequently, we expect a proliferation of IP infringement as the use of 3D printing continues to grow.

“Legislators have asked whether the current IP system is fit for purpose to defend against this avalanche of infringement. Marks & Clerk has worked in this field for over half a decade. The short answer is yes, we believe it is – but we also know we have to change the way IP is considered and how IP service providers use the system has to change to make sure that there is protection against infringement of IP rights using 3D printers.

“This is not only a challenge for those industries that use 3D printing today – it’s something that must be considered by other industries that might see 3D printers used to manufacture products within the next 20 years. Now is the time for businesses to assess whether it makes economic sense to implement 3D printing technologies within that time frame. If so, IP rights should be secured now in order to defend against 3D printing infringement in the future. Businesses, from small start-ups to established companies, must act today to protect tomorrow. Failing to do so could affect their market position for the next 20 years or more.”

Industrial transformation

The current approach to AM for many companies is to outsource this service to specialist providers. With a range of AM machinery available, this is a cost-effective means to use AM in a wide range of manufacturing scenarios. For some industries such as aerospace, automotive and big pharma, AM will transform their supply chains and enable them to, in some cases, radically alter their levels of inventory. EY calls this a move to ‘digital warehouses’ where virtual stock can be called upon when it’s needed.

EU Automation’s Neil Ballinger says: “One of the main shortcomings of AM to 3D print spare or replacement parts is that it is unclear to what extent it could help produce electronic components. We could potentially 3D print any mechanical component, but it’s much harder, though theoretically not impossible, to 3D print something like a circuit board or cables and wires. Even when possible, the whole process’s cost and complexity wouldn’t justify the business case for AM in this particular application.

“Even for mechanical components, the cost is still an issue. Metal 3D printers, for example, can easily exceed £100,000, but the cost of the printer usually represents just about 40% of the overall necessary investment. Materials can also be extremely expensive. For example, the cost of a block of aluminium is substantially lower than that of an equal amount of aluminium powder for 3D printing.

“It might be argued that technologies such as selective laser melting cause less material waste than subtractive manufacturing techniques and are therefore more convenient in the long run. However, the upfront investment for metals powders is substantial. Also, many of the most innovative alloys for 3D printing are proprietary and can only be supplied by the 3D printer manufacturer. They may have superior properties to guarantee quality and repeatability of processes, but they are not cheap.”

With Rajeev Kulkarni, Vice President, Strategy, 3D Systems also commenting: “At the heart of AM is the need to bring together software, materials, imaging systems, optics, thermal systems, motion systems, design file formats, and process expertise to create a clean, crisp, usable, and functional part. Surrounding this core is the need for process and quality monitoring tools, integration with IoT and AI, and also the need for finishing or post-processing the printed part.

Rajeev Kulkarni, Vice President, Strategy, 3D Systems.

“And, outside this printing process domain is the need for enhanced design tools that let designers harness the full value of AM through the use of organic shapes, conformal designs, generative designs, multi-material parts, etc. Finally, based on the needs of each vertical – aerospace, healthcare and Automotive – standards are required that govern all these discrete technical elements.”

And how could AM develop shortly? Markforged’s Brian Houle concluded:
“We expect to see the most significant breakthroughs coming from software. We believe AI and inspection technology like Markforged Blacksmith will skyrocket adoption for production use cases, by eliminating process parameters (part-to-part variance) and eliminating redundant inspection and validation processes.

“Essentially, machine learning will help to solve issues and save costs by providing verification at each step in the manufacturing chain – a machine can provide its own quality control, saving manufacturers time and costs associated with defects. Further down the line, we’ll also see connected machines using this pool of QA data to calibrate themselves based on part and process parameters without the need for manual intervention (similar to self-driving cars). We believe point-of-fabrication inspection will have enormous impacts on manufacturers’ ability to push the production of critical parts closer to the point of need, thereby eliminating expensive and time-consuming supply chain inefficiencies.”

There is little doubt that AM will continue on its development trajectory. As costs reduce and capacity increases, more businesses will build AM into their product development cycles. Customisation and personalisation of products will then follow. Companies that are at the mercy of their supply chains will be able to take more control as digital warehouses become a reality.

Silicon in Focus

Grant Cameron, founder and MD of Concurrent Design Group.

Grant Cameron, founder and MD of Concurrent Design Group.

Concurrent Design Group is a British 3D printing and additive manufacturing consultancy that works with automotive and aerospace manufacturers, including BAE Systems and Lotus Cars, and sports organisations, such as British Paralympic Association design makes prototypes and specialist components.

What is the current state of 3D printing in the industry?

“The 3D Printing industry, like many new industries before it, is growing in waves of technological development, followed by increased competition, followed by consolidation. Technology has taken over in a dramatic way, providing enormous gains for designers’ creativity and manufacturers’ productivity. Most of the newly designed products we see today, would not exist without these developments. The latest phase is fourth-generation 3D printers, which are now very reliable, combined with fourth-generation materials, which are now production quality. So, the 3D printing industry is in a good space right now, albeit in challenging market conditions.”

Are businesses continuing to see the benefits of using 3D printing across their enterprises? Is AM forming part of their strategic planning?

“As end-users become more experienced and tech-savvy about 3D printing, they are making better choices of machine and materials to match their critical applications. The rewards are now more significant than ever, with faster printers, greater reliability, higher throughput, with better part quality and material properties.

“3D Printing is a term used to cover any 3D Printed part. In contrast, Additive Manufacturing refers to 3D Printers designed and used in manufacturing and the production of high-quality end-use parts, which can be used on an aircraft.

“The Additive Manufacturing or AM technologies include sintered metal printing, sintered nylon printing and several other machine types. The benefit of the sintering technology is that it allows complex geometry to be produced with thin walls, sufficient detail and minimum support structures that complement the process of creating lightweight structures and lattices in the design. This can be used in the aviation industry, for example, to reduce operational costs because lighter craft uses less fuel, which also has an environmental benefit. So, yes, AM is forming part of strategic planning for enterprises.”

Which sectors and industries are expanding their use of 3D printing?

“By redesigning existing components into lightweight models, they tend to become more complex in form, leading to the use of manufacturing technologies that can produce intricate designs quickly: namely 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing in plastics and metals.

“Aerospace and healthcare have found the best return on investment for metal printing. As designers become more aware of the benefits of metal 3D printing due to design and producing more complex parts, including the use of lattices and other weight-saving geometry, its use will grow rapidly in different industries.

“For plastics parts, which continue to be the mainstay of 3D printing, the high grade of engineering plastics used is now so advanced that the number of industrial applications is growing rapidly. Also, indirect manufacturing methods are coming into play, where the tool, which can be temporary or sacrificial, is 3D printed to manufacture the end-use parts. In addition, plaster, wax and ceramic material 3D printers are also available; and parts in silicone or rubber are now easy to produce.”

What challenges remain for more wide-scale implementation of 3D printing technologies? Is high cost still an issue?

“The cost of the 3D Printers can typically range from £5k all the way up to £500k, so there really is masses of choice. However, for most users, there are dozens of machines and technology choices for under £50k. The costs of the material are very much down to supply and demand, so, for example, the production costs from 3D printing in high-performance plastics can be greater than with injection moulding, as there are no tooling costs. That said, the printing materials are now more cost-effective than ever, typically from just £25 to £250 per Kg.”

Where do you expect the next breakthrough in AM to appear and in which sector(s)?

“The next breakthrough is small and large batch production via 3D print farms of networked, managed 3D printers and high-speed 3D printers. A new example is the Figure-4 Modular 3D printer which can produce 10,000 parts per month, via up to 24 networked print engines in production quality materials.”

Photo by Ines Álvarez Fdez on Unsplash.

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing. https://www.nexuspublishing.co.uk.

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