Menno Ellis, senior vice president, Strategy & Vertical Markets, 3D Systems, offers insight into upcoming and current 3D printing applications.
The advances in the medical/life sciences space represent a major evolution that will continue to unfold and change the lives of many in front of our very eyes. In addition, continued evolution of printer-material combinations (such as, concrete, glass, food) captures our imagination as early advances provide a glimpse of what is possible. Imagine contact lenses, glasses, hearing aids, or prosthetic devices being created while you wait during a single visit to a licensed practitioner. On the commercial side, we are seeing early stage advancements in the printing of circuit boards and other electricity conducting devices that will revolutionize the way companies build electronics. Finally, the advances we are seeing in so-called 4D printing – where a 3D printed part continues to evolve after it has been printed – defies previously held beliefs about the laws of physics.
While it is exciting to watch and anticipate the advanced R&D efforts unfolding before us, it is equally important for the industry to continue proving that early stage/prototype successes can be scaled and applied in large production environments. For example, the aforementioned dental scenario comes to mind, as well as early adoption we are seeing in the automotive industry for low volume specialty vehicles, which will ultimately pave the way for mass-produced cars and light trucks.
Thinking more broadly, we should also consider advances that drive greater adoption of existing 3DP/AM applications in true high volume production environments. For example, with increasingly fast printers and the development of multi-printer appliances, automation of pre-and post-processing is gaining growing importance, and is right now in a bit of a catch-up mode vis-à-vis print speeds. We are seeing both printer OEM’s and third parties develop solutions that automate key aspects of the process, including print job loading, curing, washing & drying, support removal, and process monitoring. Moreover, advances in scanning technologies, remote monitoring, machine learning, and AI are enabling more predictable and reliable print production, as well as preventive maintenance and service to maximize machine uptime. Advances in these areas will drive another wave of adoption among manufacturers for whom 3D printing advancements by themselves are not enough, and demand end-to-end solutions to disrupt their traditional manufacturing workflows.