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Additive Manufacturing: Industry Trends and Outlook

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Additive Manufacturing: Industry Trends and Outlook

Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, technologies create three-dimensional parts from computer-aided design (CAD) models by successively adding material layer by layer until a physical part is created.

While AM technologies have been around since the 1980s, the industry went through its most striking hype cycle during the early 2010s, when promoters claimed that the technology would find broad usage in consumer applications and reorder businesses from The Home Depot to UPS.

Since the breathless hype subsided a few years ago, professional 3D printing technologies have been rapidly maturing in many concrete ways. Recent advances in machinery, materials, and software have made 3D printing accessible to a wider range of businesses, enabling more and more companies to use tools previously limited to a few high-tech industries.

Today, professional 3D printers accelerate innovation and support businesses in various industries including engineering, manufacturing, dentistry, healthcare, education, entertainment, jewelry, and audiology.

Read on for an in-depth overview of five key trends that have defined the additive manufacturing industry and the outlook for the future.

Overview: The Current State of the Additive Manufacturing Industry

The 3D printing market, with sales of $6 billion in 2017, is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 30.2% to reach a total market size of $22 billion by 2022.

  • 3D printing has been ubiquitous in prototyping and product development for decades. Now this maturing technology is entering widespread use in manufacturing.
  • Improved technology for high-throughput and high-quality printing of final parts, and a variety of improved materials, make 3D printing practical for small and mid-scale manufacturing—in some cases up to tens of thousands of units.
  • In addition to fabricating end-use products directly, 3D printing offers compelling advantages in “hybrid production,” as an intermediate process alongside conventional processes, for instance in fabricating molds, tools, patterns, fixtures, and jigs.
  • Compact, accessible “desktop” 3D printers have become more capable and, when run in parallel, can outperform expensive industrial 3D printers on cost and throughput.
  • Manufacturers are working to decrease the labor intensity of additive manufacturing (AM) workflows, which is essential for bringing 3D printing to medium- and large-scale production.
  • Investment in metal AM has skyrocketed, with process improvements and new technologies driving down cost per part.

Key Trends in Additive Manufacturing

Compact, Modular Systems for Plastic

For the first three decades of their existence, 3D printers were limited by cost and complexity to large enterprises and service bureaus. In the early 2010s, driven by more capable embedded hardware, expired patents, and matured technology, hundreds of companies entered the market and began to flood it with 3D printers. A bubble quickly appeared.

The first technology to become available on the desktop was fused deposition modeling (FDM). 3D printers that melt and selectively deposit plastic became truly affordable to consumers, but their capabilities remained limited. The surge of excitement quickly plunged into a trough of disillusionment, and the dream that 3D printers would become essential tools in every home never materialized.

Away from the frothy consumer 3D printing market, however, additive technologies continued to advance rapidly. Printers aimed at professionals for use in engineering, prototyping, and manufacturing began to cross critical thresholds in print quality, reliability, and cost structure.

The second technology to appear in a more affordable, compact, and easy-to-use format was stereolithography (SLA). In 2013, the Formlabs Form 1 brought high-resolution 3D printing—previously available only in 3D printers costing more than $80,000—to the professional market at $3,300. Offering a wide variety of functional materials, the technology expanded the use of 3D printing within product design and engineering, as well as in the dental and jewelry industries.

The third wave of 3D printing techniques to arrive on the desktop (or, more accurately, the benchtop) is based on selective laser sintering (SLS), which has been an essential technology for industrial users. Unlike other desktop AM processes, SLS creates exceptionally robust parts from thermoplastics such as nylon that are nearly as strong as their injection-molded counterparts. Unfused powder supports workpieces, which facilitates part packing for a higher throughput, and allows for a less labor- intensive post-processing workflow.

Until three years ago the least expensive SLS printers cost around $200,000 (and the largest industrial systems as much as several million dollars). Benchtop SLS printers that produce nylon parts are now becoming available in the $10,000 range, making the technology much more accessible and lowering production cost significantly when equipment ownership is taken into account. Benchtop SLS has the potential to expand beyond prototyping and reach into the domain of end-use parts.