Printing the Future: The State of Additive Manufacturing

Printing the Future: The State of Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing has been rapidly evolving. Is this technology revolutionising manufacturing, or will it remain a specialist production technique?

The AM (Additive Manufacturing) sector is on a massive upward trajectory: According to AMPower, the industry will reach £17 billion in revenue by 2027. Also, there is a clear trend to adopt AM technologies such as powder bed fusion and metal AM production. “AMPOWER believes that today’s investors in AM are increasingly prioritising long-term returns, which aligns better with the investment targets’ goals,” the report states. “This could be beneficial not only for the start-up but also for the industry as a whole, which is searching for sustainable AM solutions.”

Speaking to Silicon UK, Kieron Salter, CEO of the Digital Manufacturing Centre, outlined the current critical challenges businesses face when adopting AM technologies: “Cost and education. The cost of ‘useful’ end use parts in AM is still comparatively high compared to other traditional manufacturing technologies. If you can make a part in traditional way and it suits all your need then inevitably printing it won’t be an advantage. If, however, you can save on tooling costs and NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering), or make the part lighter, or make a complex part that traditional manufacturing solutions cannot feasibly manufacture then you will be winning.”

Kieron Salter, CEO of the Digital Manufacturing Centre
Kieron Salter, CEO of the Digital Manufacturing Centre

Salter continued: “If you are eliminating tooling then, depending on the part, there will be a breakeven point where the business case makes sense on volume – or the fact that you can continually iterate or parameterise the part without tooling costs will be an advantage. If you can make the part lighter, the business case will probably support an increase in cost particularly if you are saving energy as a result. So, while there are significant opportunities – educating and informing key stakeholders at the required intervention point is the challenge. As machine costs come down and more automation is incorporated, the costs of manufacturing parts will also decrease.”

Also, as Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management, Durham University Business School, outlines, advanced personalised design is also a key advantage AM offers to manufacturers:

Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management, Durham University Business School.
Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, Associate Professor in Technology and Operations Management, Durham University Business School.

“Additive manufacturing will play a key role in product design and customisation. Many companies actively consider additive manufacturing when designing new products, which allows customisation to suit customers’ needs and improves product performance and sustainability. Obviously, products will be continued to be produced using conventional manufacturing processes, and additive manufacturing will not replace conventional manufacturing. Either parts or products can be designed for additive manufacturing or to take advantage of both conventional and additive manufacturing processes, but this requires a change in mindset and the re-training of product designers for additive manufacturing to be considered an option.

“For example, Materialise and Vuzix have collaborated to produce 3D printed custom eyewear. Additive manufacturing has been used to produce customised products for consumer and industrial products as well as medical devices. Additive manufacturing can also be used to produce custom-designed surgical implants which not only improves patients’ clinical outcomes and faster recovery but also reduces surgical times.”

AM and traditional manufacturing will become close bedfellows as they each have clearly defined advantages and challenges. Manufacturers will create a hybrid approach that calls on the best that each technique has to offer.

Silicon Head-to-Head Interview

Gesa Schneider, Senior Territory Manager for Central Europe, Markforged.

Gesa Schneider, Senior Territory Manager for Central Europe, Markforged.
Gesa Schneider, Senior Territory Manager for Central Europe, Markforged.

As an experienced executive in the tech industry, Gesa Schneider is driven by entrepreneurship and has a determined mindset with a passion for 3D printing, the Circular Economy, and sustainable manufacturing. Since March 2023, she has been responsible for the Central Europe Sales Team at Markforged (a producer of industrial composites and metal 3D printers) based in Berlin, Germany.

Throughout her career, Gesa has executed various ideas in both 3D printing start-ups and corporations, gaining hands-on experience in all levels of the entrepreneurship sphere, from strategy and business development to product management, customer acceptance, and stakeholder engagement.

As the founder and former CEO of Circuteria, a digital platform for sustainable materials solutions, she is a leading thinker on the transformative role of emerging technologies, circular practices, and innovative business models in combating climate change. She has broad international experience in the 3D printing industry and has won various competitions and hackathons in Berlin’s start-up scene.

What are the biggest challenges or limitations in the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing?

“Cost is a substantial factor. Additive manufacturing processes can be expensive compared to traditional high-volume production manufacturing techniques. Various factors, including raw material costs, equipment investment, and post-processing requirements, contribute to this. Overcoming cost barriers while maintaining quality is an ongoing challenge that the industry addresses to make additive manufacturing more economically viable.

“Production speed is another significant challenge. Additive manufacturing processes are generally slower than traditional methods, especially for large and complex parts. Enhancing the speed of additive manufacturing without compromising quality is essential to compete with conventional manufacturing in industries where time-to-market is critical.”

Can you share examples of how additive manufacturing has contributed to sustainability or reduced environmental impact in manufacturing processes?

“AM enables material optimisation by designing and producing complex geometries with minimised waste. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods that involve subtractive processes, AM builds parts layer by layer, reducing material waste and overall consumption. Additionally, you no longer rely on using many materials (which makes recycling so hard); instead, you can use simple materials because stability can come through the structure. Increasing computational power allows us to design more complex objects and mimic nature’s design process. Design software, like the Markforged Eiger simulation software, contributes to AM’s sustainable impact as the user can optimise the object in the simulation tool instead of having a lot of failed prints.

“Furthermore, AM allows for the lightweighting of structures without compromising strength or functionality. By creating lightweight components, industries such as aerospace and automotive can achieve improved energy efficiency and reduced emissions. This is critical for sustainability efforts, as it contributes to fuel conservation and lower carbon footprints.

“AM also helps to lower CO2 emissions by reducing transportation and logistics needs. Instead of manufacturing parts in one location and shipping them to another, AM enables on-demand production, allowing localised manufacturing. This reduces transportation emissions, energy consumption, and the associated environmental impact. AM limits the need for mass production and excess inventory by facilitating the production of highly customised products and components.”

How do you envision additive manufacturing shaping the future of product design and customisation?

“AM enables us to design better. We take everything we see in the world, whether it is products, buildings, or anything else, for granted since we know it this way. But instead, it is just the result of our limitations in imagination and technological possibilities. We need to shift from mass production to individual production. Only AM can enable this shift because other manufacturing technologies support the mass production model. By overcoming the limitations of traditional manufacturing, AM opens up new avenues for design innovation and customisation possibilities.

“In terms of customisation, AM is a game-changer. It allows for the production of highly personalised and tailor-made products. From customised prosthetics to personalised consumer goods, AM can create unique, one-of-a-kind items that perfectly fit individual needs and preferences. As mentioned above, this enhances user experience and reduces waste associated with mass production and unsold inventory. Furthermore, the digital nature of AM allows us to innovate and adapt to these products much faster and to transfer and multiply these products in the form of a file globally in a blink of an eye.

“Looking ahead, I envision additive manufacturing playing a pivotal role in the future of product design and customisation. As technology advances, we expect to see a shift towards on-demand manufacturing, where products are created precisely when and where they are needed. This will contribute to reducing waste, optimising inventory management, and enhancing overall sustainability in the manufacturing sector.”

Are there any regulatory or legal considerations that need to be addressed in the context of additive manufacturing? If so, what are they?

“One crucial consideration is the establishment of safety and quality standards specific to AM. As AM involves new materials, processes, and equipment, ensuring the safety of operators, consumers, and end-users is paramount. Developing robust standards for material properties, machine calibration, and post-processing procedures helps mitigate risks and maintain consistent product quality.

“Another critical aspect is intellectual property (IP)protection. With the ease of reproducing complex designs, protecting intellectual property rights becomes a significant concern. It is essential to define legal frameworks for digital file sharing, licensing, and enforcement of IP rights in the context of AM to safeguard innovation and incentivise creators.

“Product liability and certification, as well as privacy and data security, present further challenges that need to be addressed, which require collaboration between industry stakeholders, policymakers, and regulatory bodies. Developing comprehensive frameworks that balance safety, innovation, intellectual property protection, and environmental sustainability is crucial for AM’s responsible and widespread adoption.”

What role do you believe education and skill development play in unlocking the full potential of additive manufacturing?

“Education and skill development play a vital role in unlocking the full potential of additive manufacturing. They are essential for driving innovation, promoting adoption, and maximising the benefits of this transformative technology. Firstly, education creates awareness and knowledge about AM and its capabilities across various industries.

“By providing a comprehensive understanding of the technology, its applications, and potential benefits, education programs inspire individuals to explore and embrace AM in their respective fields. Secondly, skill development is crucial for AM’s successful implementation. Training programs equip individuals with the necessary skills to operate AM machines effectively, utilise software tools for 3D modelling, and employ post-processing techniques.

These technical skills are essential for achieving consistent and high-quality outputs. Moreover, education fosters expertise in design and engineering for AM. By educating designers and engineers about the unique considerations of AM, such as design for AM principles and material selection, they can fully leverage AM’s design freedom and capabilities. This expertise leads to innovative strategies that maximise efficiency, performance, and sustainability. Additionally, education plays a crucial role in material science and selection for AM. By providing knowledge about the range of sustainable and renewable materials and their properties, individuals can make informed decisions about material selection for specific applications.

“Also, understanding encourages exploring and developing new ecological materials tailored for AM processes. Lastly, education promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, which is crucial in AM. Education facilitates a holistic understanding of AM and encourages effective teamwork by fostering cooperation between engineers, designers, material scientists, and business professionals. This interdisciplinary collaboration leads to the development of innovative and successful AM applications.

Can you provide any insights or predictions on the future of additive manufacturing? How do you see it evolving and impacting different industries in the coming years?

“As its benefits become more widely recognised, its adoption will increase across industries. AM’s capabilities are already being utilised in aerospace, automotive, healthcare, consumer goods, and architecture, and this trend will continue. Further adoption will be driven by its accessibility, cost-effectiveness, and ability to produce large and complex parts.

“AM will significantly impact particular industries by addressing specific challenges with tailored applications. Personalised medicine will be transformed in healthcare through patient-specific implants, prosthetics, and anatomical models for surgical planning. The automotive sector will benefit from lightweight, customisation, and complex component production. Each industry will find unique ways to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and drive innovation with AM. Furthermore, AM will increasingly integrate with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“This convergence will automate AM workflows, enhance process control, and improve quality assurance. AI-driven design optimisations, robotic assembly of printed components, and IoT-enabled monitoring and maintenance will be pivotal in advancing the AM ecosystem. AM and VR/AR technologies will be used to create immersive virtual prototyping experiences, allowing for development, and testing of designs linked to models before the physical prototypes are printed.”

Are there any specific industries or applications that could benefit significantly from further advancements in additive manufacturing? 

“Advancements in additive manufacturing have the potential to benefit significantly various industries and applications. As mentioned above, the healthcare, aerospace, and automotive industries can undoubtedly benefit from AM’s customisation and lightweight possibilities. But also, for the manufacturing and tooling industry, the advantages are significant as AM streamlines traditional manufacturing processes and tooling production, reducing lead times and costs and enabling faster prototyping and small-batch production.

“Furthermore, architecture and construction will benefit as AM facilitates the creation of intricate designs, optimised geometries, and unique architectural structures, reducing material waste and construction time. Overall, AM advancements have the potential to revolutionise production processes, improve product performance, enable customisation, and accelerate innovation across almost any industry.”

How will additive manufacturing affect global supply chains and manufacturing networks?

“Additive manufacturing will have a transformative impact on global supply chains and manufacturing networks. Here are the critical ways it will reshape these areas:

Firstly, AM enables localised production, effectively reducing the dependence on long-distance transportation and the need for extensive inventories. By adopting a localised approach, lead times are shortened, logistics costs are lowered, and businesses gain greater flexibility in meeting customer demands.

Secondly, AM unlocks the potential for highly customised products, shifting the focus from mass production to personalised goods. This paradigm shift necessitates adaptations within supply chains, particularly regarding flexible inventory management and real-time data sharing. This flexibility allows companies to respond quickly and efficiently to customer needs, enhancing customer satisfaction and fostering stronger relationships.

Thirdly, another significant impact of AM lies in revolutionising spare parts management. The ability to produce parts on demand eliminates the need for extensive stockpiling and reduces lead times and associated costs. This revolutionary approach enhances responsiveness in spare parts management, minimising downtime and streamlining maintenance processes. All these transformative changes offer immense opportunities for businesses to improve efficiency, responsiveness, and innovation within their operations.”

Are there any concerns or potential risks associated with additive manufacturing that should be addressed?

“Yes, concerns and potential risks associated with additive manufacturing should be addressed. Here are some key areas of concern:

“Firstly, ensuring consistent quality and reliability of printed parts remains challenging as AM technologies evolve. Variability in material properties, build parameters, and post-processing techniques can impact components’ structural integrity and performance. Robust quality control processes, certification standards, and validation methods are crucial to mitigate these risks.

“Secondly, the digital nature of AM introduces concerns regarding IP protection. Unauthorised reproduction and counterfeiting are made more accessible by the ability to reproduce objects using digital files. To safeguard proprietary information and prevent IP infringement, it is essential to protect design files, implement secure data exchange protocols, and develop effective IP management strategies.

“Thirdly, the digital nature of AM poses cybersecurity risks. Unauthorised access to design files, manipulation of digital models, and disruption of production processes are potential threats. Robust cybersecurity measures, secure network protocols, and encryption techniques must be implemented to protect sensitive data and maintain the integrity of AM systems.

“Lastly, the rapid advancement of AM often outpaces existing regulatory frameworks. Compliance with regulations can be challenging, particularly in safety-critical industries like healthcare and aerospace. Governments and regulatory bodies must stay abreast of the evolving technology landscape and establish guidelines and standards addressing safety, quality, and legal considerations. By proactively addressing these concerns and risks through collaboration between industry, government, and regulatory bodies, we can harness the full potential of AM while ensuring the safety, quality, and responsible adoption of the technology.”

What role do the government or policymakers play in promoting and regulating additive manufacturing?

“Governments play a multifaceted role in promoting and regulating AM. Their involvement is necessary to foster innovation, establish robust regulatory frameworks, promote standardisation, invest in skills development, and facilitate international collaboration. Through these efforts, governments contribute to the responsible and sustainable growth of additive manufacturing. Key aspects and areas they should focus on are:

  1. Regulatory Frameworks: Comprehensive regulations are needed to address various aspects of AM, including safety, quality, intellectual property (IP) protection, and ethical considerations. Governments play a vital role in establishing these frameworks to ensure responsible and safe adoption of AM.
  2. Standardisation and Certification: Governments should actively support the development of industry standards and certification processes for AM. This promotes interoperability, ensures product quality, and facilitates international trade. Standardisation efforts contribute to the growth and acceptance of AM on a global scale.
  3. Skills Development: Investing in education and training programs is crucial for developing a skilled workforce proficient in AM technologies. By addressing the skills gap, governments can foster innovation and create a workforce equipped to drive the growth of the AM industry.

“If used with the correct foundational principles, additive manufacturing has the technological capability for a new type of manufacturing process that can run on renewable energy and recycle materials back into the system in a closed loop, resulting in a highly distributed production model. Therefore, we must strive for material parsimony and add functionality through design like nature does. Increasing computer power, innovative generative design tools, and better and faster printers can enable a new manufacturing world.

“The way we create things and our material choices have a massive impact on us and our environment. Global manufacturing consumes about a fifth of the world’s GHG emissions, and two-thirds of all environmental damages come through improper use or overuse of materials. With Additive Manufacturing, the technology for future manufacturing, we have the power and the obligation to lay the foundation for it to be sustainable and ecological.”

An AM future

To truly take full advantage of AM, businesses clearly need more detailed knowledge about the processes, but also how AM can integrate into their existing manufacturing processes, as Mathieu Perennou, Global Business Development Director for Additive Manufacturing Solutions at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, concluded:

“Currently, the level of education within the industry remains low, resulting in many companies being interested in AM but needing help using it. There are two main challenges: One challenge is making informed decisions about the adoption of AM. Companies often need help with questions like feasibility, financial viability, and identifying products suitable for AM. Software solutions such as CASTOR can help identify products and assemblies that can be made using AM, but education about AM capabilities is still needed to make informed decisions about how to apply it.

“Another challenge lies in acquiring the skills to design for AM. This skillset has yet to be widely developed; with it, manufacturers can design and manufacture using AM at scale. For example, a lack of understanding of AM can lead to designs that are not well-suited for AM or parts that fail to meet quality and performance requirements, all of which are costly errors.

“The end result of this skills gap is a catch-22, where businesses decide AM is not a suitable option, due to a lack of expertise, and so its full potential is never explored, and the skills needed to do so are not developed. As a technology company, Hexagon has developed software that uses simulations to help manufacturers predict and mitigate distortions, warping and other problems but teams still need experience, and the use of AI will help process more data from production advise the user. Technology only augments people and to ensure the future success and widespread adoption of AM, it is still crucial to invest in education and skill development at a company or regional level.”

Durham University Business School’s Dr Atanu Chaudhuri concludes: “Governments and policymakers should seek to create an enabling environment. The UK’s National Additive Manufacturing Strategy already exists, and the UK does have expertise in additive manufacturing technology development, but I still do not see much industrial adoption, possibly because of the challenges mentioned above and lack of willingness to change.

“The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology should engage with additive manufacturing industry ecosystem and academics to create a roadmap for adoption and capability development. If some regulatory hurdles are identified through such an exercise, those should be eased out. Potentially, there can be incentives for players working on using recycled materials for 3D printing if they can demonstrate net CO2 reduction across the lifecycle.”

The AM sector is expanding, but this technology can be seen as a novelty for many businesses rather than part of their strategic planning. More needs to be done to demystify AM, as the criticism that the technology can come under is often unfounded. There is little doubt that AM will transform some manufacturing sectors more than others. For those that see their processes disrupted, managing their transition to AM will be critical to their long-term advantage.