Growing up: additive manufacturing and 3D printing at 30

Courtesy of Nottingham University

The big 3-0 is more than a symbolic milestone for the additive manufacturing and 3D printing industry, according to Sophie Jones, general manager at technical services firm Added Scientific. Here, Sophie highlights the very real progress that has been made across the AM landscape and assesses its future potential—challenges included.

Much has been said about the events of 2016it was certainly a dramatic yearbut we’re not going to dwell on that. There was one event, however, that didn’t seem to get much attention in the news, which was that the AM and 3D printing industry celebrated its 30th birthday.

For many of us, the big ‘three-o’ is a major milestone. Moreover, as you cross over into your thirties, it tends to bring a period of reflection and motivation and an opportunity to take a long, hard look at what you’re doing and where you’re going. The realization often hits, and suddenly it’s time to grow-up, settle down, take things seriously, focus on the important stuff. Which is funny really, because after the excesses of the last ten years, it feels like that’s exactly what the AM and 3D printing industry has been doing. Could 2017 be the year that this sector comes of age?

Reflecting on the last thirty years, the industry has come a long way in that time. Starting with Chuck Hull in 1986, the late 1980s and 1990s saw the development of almost all technology platforms still in use today, including stereolithography (SL), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and its generic spin-off fused filament fabrication (FFF), material jetting and powder-bed processes. Many of the major players were formed, including Stratasys, 3D Systems and EOS.

Additive technologies were initially used only for creating prototypes and models, but as the capabilities increased, dominant processes also found applications in tooling, jigs and fixtures and, finally, in manufacturing end-use parts. Arguably, the first mass-produced product manufactured via 3D printing was the in-the-ear (ITE) hearing aid, a product well-suited to AM thanks to its personalized geometry and small size. And yet, for the first twenty years or so, 3D printing was still relatively unknown beyond industrial and academic circles.

And then, almost overnight, 3D printing exploded into the public consciousness, thanks in no small part to the founding of the RepRap project. The idea for a Replicating Rapid-prototyper was first published by Adrian Bowyer in 2004, ahead of the first physical machine in 2007, which kick-started innumerable (open source and commercial) desktop printing companies.

Two separate markets subsequently emerged: the consumer printer market that made low-cost printers for the home user, and the industrial printer market that made high-end production machines. Suddenly, the world was a-buzz with the possibility of low-cost printers in every home and revolution was in the air. Venture capital money was flowing freely, crowd-funding sites were overcrowded with 3D printing start-ups and mainstream news outlets featured 3D printing on their homepage on a weekly basis.

The party had to end sooner or later; by 2015 it was becoming increasingly apparent that the 3D printing consumer market was stallingif indeed it existed at allstock prices were tumbling and you would be forgiven for thinking that the industry had fallen into the infamous ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Some more hysterical accounts were signaling the death of the industry and attempted to hammer nails into the coffin. And yet, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

While the consumer market was, indeed, struggling, the industrial market for AM was going from strength to strength. The technology was proving itself capable of producing end-use parts for demanding applications, including the aerospace, motorsport and medical sectors. Big names were making conspicuous moves into the market including HP, Alcoa, Autodesk and Siemens; while the icing on the 30th birthday cake was GE’s acquisition of two metal machine manufacturers in 2016. The media hyperbole peaked again for a brief time, but overall started to calm down and the language used at conferences and trade shows changed from ‘What will we do in the future?’ to ‘What are we doing today?’

This shift in tone is a positive—and significant—one; companies are now far more realistic about their AM & 3D printing aspirations and have a deeper understanding of where it will bring value for their business. It is now commonplace for major manufacturers to have groups dedicated to expanding the use of AM and 3D printing across their business and are committing significant resources to developing the infrastructure needed to implement the technology.

There are still some major barriers for AM and 3D printing that we’re going to have to address if the industry is to continue to develop. The UK’s National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing has identified a range of these, including materials, design, quality standards, qualified personnel and access to finance. While this is a regional initiative, it is one that is being reflected around the world.

Arguably, the most urgent of these is a skills and education gap that is limiting the rate at which companies can adopt the technology and address some of the other barriers. Although not exactly glamourous, these are issues that traditional manufacturing processes, such as casting or injection molding, have well-established policies and procedures to address. If additive technologies are going to seriously compete with and/or support traditional manufacturing processes, the sector needs to grow up and tackle these challenges. This will take investment from both industry and governments around the world, as well as co-operation between AM and 3D printing stakeholders. However, if the global industry can address these shortcomings, it opens the door to new opportunities for the technology.

Some of the interesting trends on the horizon include:

Production-focused processes
Although AM and 3D printing has come a long way, the architecture of the machines has not changed significantlyessentially, they are still rapid prototyping machines. Sure, today they are faster and more reliable, but are they suitable for manufacturing production parts? In the coming years, expect to see new processes that challenge the economics of today’s processes.

Multi-material systems
To exploit the benefits offered by AM and 3D printing, we will see more machines that are capable of printing with multiple materials at the same time. This does not just mean similar polymerssuch as with the material jetting systems available todaybut a wide range of materials including metals, plastics, semi-conductors and biological material. This will open up opportunities in sectors such as consumer electronics and biomedical with the potential for these products to become internet of things- (IoT-) enabled devices.

New design tools
Too often, traditional CAD software is not sufficient for specific AM applications. Large files, particularly those containing lattices or organic structures, can become unworkable.  Over time, we will see new design tools that can support voxel-based systems, as well as incorporate scanning and simulation. These will have workflows that assist engineers and designers to optimize designs for AM and 3D printing.

Regulatory Frameworks and Quality Systems
There has been much discussion in recent years about frameworks needed to address the threat of 3D printing to intellectual property (IP) and much of this has been overblown. However, new regulatory frameworks specifically for AM and 3D printing are required, and these will go beyond just IP.

If the predictions for pharmaceutical printing are realized, new frameworks will be required to regulate how drugs are designed, manufactured and dispensed. The opportunities offered by distributed manufacturing will also create a need for new frameworks to control how products are certified. Some companies, particularly in the aerospace and medical industries, have already developed their own quality specifications for AM and 3D printing processes, but this will become more universal.

Some of these predictions may come to pass sooner than others, some are already taking place. What is certain is that the AM and 3D printing industry really is growing-up. The industry’s turbulent twenties have given way to a more mature, rational approach which can only be a good thing for the future of the technology. 

About Sophie Jones

Sophie Jones is general manager for technical services firm Added Scientific with a proven track record for helping companies to understand AM and build business cases for technology adoption. Sophie’s knowledge of the broad range of AM processes is exceptional and is combined with a depth of understanding on how to successfully apply the technology in business environments.

Sophie studied at Loughborough University, gaining a Masters in Innovative Manufacturing Engineering.