Whether because of the pandemic or in spite of it, the adoption of manufacturing technologies did not stop when the world changed. Additive manufacturing (AM), in particular, has seen continued adoption, albeit at a slower pace, and is rebounding.
As an industry, AM grew 19.5% in 2021. This is up from 7.5% growth in 2020, which was heavily impacted by the pandemic, as reported by Wohlers Associates.
“As expected, the industry has returned to a period of advancement and investment,” said Terry Wohlers, manager of consulting services and market intelligence at Wohlers Associates, powered by ASTM International. “This expansion is in aerospace, healthcare, automotive, consumer products, energy and other sectors.”
Manufacturing services company Jabil surveyed 300 AM decision makers on a variety of topics related to the use of additive manufacturing products and services. Studying the results reveals several emerging trends that may continue to drive increased adoption of AM processes.
Go beyond prototyping
Originally, 3D printing for manufacturing was called “rapid prototyping” and was the only reason companies purchased 3D printers or contracted out 3D printing service bureaus. In 2020, for the first time, the use of prototyping did not increase as a percentage of total industrial 3D printing, unlike all other uses.
More companies are using AM for functional or end-use parts than ever before. Nearly 55% of those surveyed by Jabil say they use at least a quarter of their AM capacity to produce such parts. Companies making production parts are among the biggest users of 3D printing, with many reporting having more than 100 3D printers in-house. Companies already using AM beyond prototyping are optimistic about increased use; 87% expect their use to at least double in the next five years.
HP entered the 3D printing market a few years ago and is reaping the positive benefits of AM processes under its own roof. The cooling duct of the HP 500 series 3D printer was originally made up of separate parts. When HP converted the duct to be 3D printed, the separate parts were combined into one piece, reducing production costs by 30%.
Other HP divisions have taken notice: the commercial printers division has reduced the number of parts on the new 12000 digital press to just 21 3D printed parts. The company claims this resulted in an 80% saving and a 91% reduction in assembly time.
Supply chain challenges
As the use of 3D printing technology increases, so do the challenges of increasing AM production. Manufacturers actively using AM technology were more likely in 2020 to report scalability issues than in 2019. Platform technology issues were up 8% year-over-year, while reported ecosystem issues increased by 13%. The AM industry still has a long way to go before it has push button output from a 3D model. There are proprietary and collaborative open standards being developed to make printing a 3D model as easy as printing a PDF file on an inkjet printer.
The larger issue of digital transformation in manufacturing touches on additive manufacturing. The use of additive manufacturing takes production from a best attempt to achieve design intent to a 100% accurate representation of the design. This is starting to impact supply chains in multiple ways. Some vendors provide tools and accessories, which are eliminated in 3D printing.
Others produce a surplus of parts and components for aftermarket repairs and sales. Such storage becomes unnecessary when new parts and components can be printed on demand.
Big changes in materials
Plastics are still the most common material used for 3D printing, but the use of metals and composites is growing rapidly. There is also frustration with the current system where most materials are owned by a 3D printer brand or model. 54% of respondents say material issues prevent their company from using AM more often in production manufacturing.
As materials become more readily available and affordable, the ecological benefit will increase. Traditional manufacturing scrap will be reduced or eliminated. The energy-intensive processes of subtractive manufacturing will also be reduced for a more sustainable process.
Green is easier said than done
Using AM to reduce waste is not a panacea, notes Materialise, an AM software and services provider. “If you assume that 3D printing is by definition sustainable, then you are greenwashing,” said Wilfried Vancraen, CEO of Materialize. Energy consumption, pre- and post-production issues, and print waste all need to be considered. “We strongly believe that we can add value towards a more sustainable world, but let’s face it. We must make the effort to achieve real sustainability.
Vancraen cites a life cycle analysis his company conducted with chemical giant (and leading manufacturer of 3D printing materials) BASF. They studied a production run of one million pairs of shoe midsoles, recording the environmental impact at all stages of the product’s life. One production run used three 3D printing technologies, the other used polyurethane casting. The analysis showed that for mass production of identical products, 3D printing is currently not the most sustainable choice. AM has had a greater impact on climate change and fossil fuel depletion compared to polyurethane casting.
This points to another rising trend of finding the best use for traditional and digital processes. The Superfeet footwear company offers a variety of custom made products. Using traditional methods, they could produce a pair of custom shoes in an hour. When they moved to digital manufacturing and 3D printing, the time it took to create a new pair of custom shoes dropped to between 15 and 25 minutes.
In short, additive manufacturing is an exciting technology that can enable new choices and meaningful opportunities, enabling next-generation products and sustainable innovation.
Colin Swearingen is a consultant in industrial processes modeling and simulation for Dassault Systèmes.