Whatever you label it–3D printing (3DP) or additive manufacturing (AM)—scientists, researchers, and key industry experts are saying that this technology will become the most strategic and most used in this century. While much development and innovation has occurred in the last couple of years, more needs to be done. It’s useful to take a look at key trends, developments, and influences affecting this industry now and in the coming months. Terry Wohlers, of Wohlers Associates, gave a State of the Industry Report at RAPID 2012, where he spoke to a packed auditorium. Here are a few of his key developments.
Manufacturing: There’s been much blogging and opining about the potential disruptive effects of this technology on traditional manufacturing. The fact is, it is already being used for serious manufacturing in certain industries, such as aerospace, medical, dental, and motorsport. Some consumer markets are already using this technology for manufacturing as well. Noted Wohlers, additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies are well suited to applications where the complexity is high but the production volume is low.
Standards: Standards organizations, including ASTM, SME, ISO are working together to develop standards for the technologies and materials used in this industry. This will be a key development that will help promote the use of AM and 3DP in manufacturing. Noted one speaker from the AMUG conference, Jeff DeGrange, VP DDM, Stratasys, a key element holding this technology back from greater use is the lack of standards on materials. What will the end use material do as far as its performance, initially and over the long term? That’s just one piece of the information designers need to have confidence in specifying and using this technology. (I’ll have more comments on this in a later blog.)
Materials: Metal materials have come a long way, and interest is laser sintering is increasing. As of 2010, doctors have performed about 30,000 hip implants built from AM processes and metal materials. In some cases the metals are better than cast materials. Noted Wohlers, there are 13 companies in Europe that manufacture and sell AM machines that work with metals. A couple of them have recently established offices here in the U.S. Wohlers went on to say that far more metal AM parts are being produced on these European systems than on machines manufactured elsewhere in the world, including the U.S.
Material prices will drop. Some of this is due to the small personal 3D printers and the increasing purchase of materials for these systems. RepRap prices, for example, are already going down.
Expiring patents: Key patents will expire soon. Several laser sintering patents will expire in 2014. Already, some companies in Europe have developed desktop laser sintering units, such as the Blueprinter from ApS-Denmark, which sells for about $7000 to $9000 and uses thermoplastic powder. It will be interesting to see what happens; remember that the expiration of key FDM patents led to the explosion of smaller, low-cost extrusion 3D printers.
Tooling: When AM was first introduced, the main application was to produce tooling. There were enough problems with that application that initial users stopped using these systems. This application is returning, but those developing tooling with 3DP/AM equipment are doing it more carefully and more intelligently.
Government investment: The President proposed a $1 billion investment into a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation as part of his 2013 budget. About $30 million of that will be spent by the Department of Defense in research on whether 3D printing, additive manufacturing technology can help the DoD reduce costs on assembly tools, as well as aerospace and defense parts. Noted Wohlers, this investment will give a real boost to this industry.
Complex applications: More demanding applications are emerging. One example mentioned by Wohlers involved batteries and electronics. With 3D printers and additive manufacturing systems, engineers can design batteries that conform to a product design rather than alter the design to fit the battery. Experiments are also underway for incorporating electronic circuits into the printing processes.
Legal issues: It’s been discussed for the last couple of years—intellectual property rights. Legal issues are expected to affect this industry. Already a few users of popular upload-your-CAD-file-sites are being challenged for copyright infringement.
Inventories: Inventories will eventually shift from physical to digital.
Design software: Another key trend is the new software design tools, like 3DTin, Tinkercad, and 123D Autodesk that are making it easier for non-engineers to design simple parts. These tools are also helping educators and students work with the personal and some desktop systems.
One of the next developments you will see will be websites that let you co-design and co-create parts. Lots of business models around this idea are coming.
A last key trend mentioned by Wohlers is the increasing number of 3D printers built for kids and students. The benefits from this trend may not be felt for a decade, but these future engineers are learning now.
One final note: While the U.S. leads in the adoption of these units, it is slipping in the development of new 3D printing technology as well as advancing already operating technology.