Print Your Own: The State of Additive Manufacturing

According to the current report from Sculpeto, Many industries are beginning to consolidate their use of 3D printing as the role of 3D printing becomes more defined within their manufacturing processes. Users are becoming more mature in their knowledge and application of additive manufacturing: 80% of respondents have used 3D printing for more than two years (+7% vs 2019), and 31% even use it daily.

There is no doubt that AM is on a trajectory that will change many businesses in the manufacturing industry. AM was firmly in the short-run or prototyping sector; today, major manufacturers continue to integrate AM into their production processes.

The number of companies that have shifted to using AM for full-scale production runs of hundreds of thousands of parts has doubled from 7% in 2019 to 14% in 2020, proving AM has evolved from the prototyping phase,” finds the third annual study from Essentium. During the Covid-19 pandemic, AM proved it can step in to make quantities of supplies at scale, or at least the mould to make the product, to keep the assembly lines moving.

Blake Teipel, PhD, CEO and Co-founder, Essentium, Inc., commented to Silicon UK: “One of the most significant breakthroughs we anticipate will be AM’s role in keep supply chains flowing and factory floors moving in the event of a disruption. 3D printing is an excellent alternative for manufacturers to fill gaps in the supply chain caused by circumstances beyond their control.

Teipel continued: “We’re at the beginning of radical change. Additive is ready for prime time, and manufacturers are already moving into actual manufacturing to save manufacturing costs while building stronger supply chains that can withstand the worst type of unforeseen events – such as the pandemic.”

Manufacturing is rapidly evolving. AM offers a flexible approach that can provide massive cost savings and efficiency improvements. “By redesigning existing components into light-weight models, they tend to become more complex in form, leading to the use of manufacturing technologies that can produce complex designs easily: namely 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing in plastics and metals,” says Grant Cameron, MD, Concurrent Design Group.

“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 as a result of being able to design and produce more complex parts, including use of lattices and other weight-saving geometry, its use will grow rapidly in other industries.”

Inside knowledge

To gain an insight into how additive manufacturing has evolved and what the future could look like, Silicon UK spoke with Rajeev Kulkarni, Vice President, Strategy, 3D Systems.

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

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

“Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a manufacturing technology that sits within the manufacturer’s toolbox. It presents a tremendous opportunity to introduce a high level of efficiency into the industrial manufacturing process, with the ability to print metals and plastics, bio print tissue, jet edible foods, and be applied in concrete-based construction. Beyond improved efficiency, AM also delivers benefits such as material savings, reduced time-to-market, and lowered operational costs. AM will never replace all traditional processes, although the designer and manufacturer should integrate it into their workflow when making design and economic sense.

“For all the success manufacturers have realised from AM, it’s a relatively ‘young’ manufacturing technology and is still establishing its base. A great deal of R&D effort across the industry is focused on materials, size of prints, accuracy, reliability, and repeatability. While all these are being mastered, the need for standards for materials, processes, and software is still in its infancy. AM’s evolution will continue through these efforts, adding value to many aspects of product design and manufacturing.

“On the flip side, the opportunities envisioned for in-home 3D printing have not materialised. The 3D printers originally developed for in-home use have largely shifted to STEM classrooms, maker spaces, and among ‘garage entrepreneurs.’ The challenge for home 3D printing is rooted in the lack of useful applications for the technology and limitations of simplistic design tools and skills to create 3D printable data. Several developments are happening on the culinary printing front, although those are focused for use by high-end kitchens and chefs, not for use by the average ‘at-home chef.’”

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

“Manufacturing is transforming as companies introduce the power of additive manufacturing into workflows built upon traditional technologies. We’ve seen evidence in a 2019 E&Y study that confirms the adoption of additive is ramping, with nearly 75% of companies embracing the technology. That same study indicates that 46% of manufacturing organisations will apply AM for end-use parts by 2022. We believe this increase in adoption results from the influence the technology has on the product development process – from design to production – and from its ability to enable new business models and improve efficiencies.

“The main design value propositions being pursued are weight reduction, assembly count consolidation, increased operational efficiencies with conformal designs, topologically optimised designs, multi-material parts, and adoption of new materials and alloys. The business benefits that manifest due to these design benefits are reduced tooling costs, decentralised manufacturing, mass customisation, reduction in spare parts inventory, cost-effective, low volume production, and reduced time to market.

“And the blend of design and business value makes the planning within an organisation very strategic. It is one that is being simultaneously pushed top-down and bottom-up.”

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

“3D Systems, and largely the industry, is focused on developing additive manufacturing solutions to address applications within Healthcare, Aerospace, Automotive and durable goods. These, by far, are the highest growth sectors for AM. The need for custom solutions, improved efficiencies, and new business models are the main drivers that encourage organisations within these sectors to explore and adapt this tool for manufacturing.

“The unique AM solutions designed to address a customer’s application needs involve digitisation of data, part building, customised technology development based on application needs, custom materials, and supporting that with application and business expertise. For example, within the Healthcare industry, the development of patient-specific dental prosthetics, aligners, hearing aids, implants, surgical aids, prosthetics, and limb joints are all enabled by Additive Manufacturing and benefit from the affordable customisation it offers.”

What challenges remain for more wide-scale implementation of 3D printing technologies?

“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, also the need for finishing or post-processing the printed part.

“And, outside this printing process domain is the need for enhanced design tools that let designers harness the total 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, Automotive, etc. – standards are required that govern all these discrete technical elements.

“There are various levels of innovation being brought to market in each of these areas, and that has made the technology very fluid. Currently, within the AM industry, each organisation is pursuing its independent path, and there is minimal work being done to harmonise the standards, terms, and communication channels. As an industry, we need the most work so that the customers are not overwhelmed with the need to sort this by themselves.

“While lower costs might help, the value offered by AM is so highly disruptive, that if implemented correctly, it negates the cost concerns. There are several examples like jewellery, dental prosthetics, hearing aids, and aligners where AM has been adapted by the entire industry by carefully understanding how to harness its complete value and thus negating the cost variable.”

Does AM form a critical component for Industry 4.0 to expand and diversify?

“Inherently, AM is a digital technology, and that bodes well for Industry 4.0 as it too relies on digital platforms. 3D printing fits well in this paradigm as it is a practical solution for both product development and conventional manufacturing. This enables organisations to digitise design and manufacturing into one single process and integrate into the Industry 4.0 platform that enables a networked factory.

“To enable such a networked, Industry 4.0 factory, we not only need to digitise and integrate the logistics of the manufacturing and delivery process, but process control, customisation, and distributed manufacturing also need to work together. 3D printing enables this digital integration naturally and hence is an important element of Industry 4.0. Additionally, the use of AI, AR, and VR in this mix is also helping the evolution.”

AM is now out of the early adopter stage of its development. The capabilities of AM machines and the materials they can use, has lifted many of the technical barriers that did exist.

AM is now an essential component for manufacturers considering their processes and supply chains that they will increasingly rely upon to help them innovate. The future where personalised products become the poster child of 3D printing, it’s a more mundane revolution in day-to-day manufacturing where genuine innovations are taking place.

Photo by Tom Claes 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.

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