An in-depth survey of 700 current and future users of 3D printing (3DP) holds few surprises about the future of the technology, but its results emphasize some major trends already in progress. Two standouts are the big growth in end-use parts and metal additive manufacturing (AM) expected by most respondents.
Unlike many other 3DP/AM studies, this one surveyed North American designers, engineers, and executives at companies either already using these technologies for product development, or committed to doing so in the next three years. Results of the survey, commissioned by leading service bureau Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (SDM), were revealed during a recent media summit at the company's Austin, Texas, facility.
Survey respondents in a new study by Stratasys Direct Manufacturing ranged from engineers and designers to executives and project managers, and 40% of them work for companies with more than $50 million in revenue. They serve in a variety of production roles and work across a number of industries, although most are in aerospace, automotive, medical, and consumer products.
(Source: Stratasys Direct Manufacturing)
SDM and parent company Stratasys wanted to find out where professional 3D printing is headed, said Joe Allison, SDM CEO, at the summit meeting. "How will companies use 3D printing in the next three years, and what are the greatest hurdles to its adoption?" he said. They wanted to learn what common themes unite companies adopting and integrating 3D printing into their manufacturing processes, in terms of business benefits and challenges, applications, equipment, materials, and services.
Most respondents work in the aerospace, automotive, medical, and consumer products sectors. More than half have a production role in concepts and design, functional prototyping, or both, and 40% work in manufacturing engineering. Forty percent of respondents work for companies with over $50 million in revenue.
The current state of 3DP and AM is a somewhat mixed bag. When asked to name the most significant benefit of AM, 79% of respondents said more complex design capabilities and 76% said shorter lead times, a refrain we at Design News keep hearing, especially in aerospace. The benefits of outsourcing AM projects to a service bureau were access to advanced equipment at 73%, followed by less investment risk 60%, the ability to produce parts they can't make internally 53%, and access to AM expertise 47%.
An overwhelming 84% of respondents said they want to see metals developed further for AM, across all industries. They expect metal processes such as EBM (electron beam melting) and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) to nearly double in the next three years. This automotive oil separator was made with EOS' DMLS.
(Source: Formula Student Race Team, University of Stuttgart)
Despite these clear overall benefits, several major challenges remain to implementing 3DP/AM technologies. Two of the top four are equipment and manufacturing costs, in addition to post-processing requirements and limited materials. These results emphasize some well-known and much-discussed ongoing barriers to implementation.
When asked what one issue would have the greatest impact on the future of AM and 3DP, respondents mentioned several with no single issue standing out. These included cost of equipment (20%), mechanical properties (16%), materials available (10%), and slow equipment (8%). Cost of materials was cited by only 5%, along with volume constraints and design accuracy at 5% each.
Both current and future users strongly believe more end-use parts will be designed for AM within the next three years. The industries expanding their use of this the most are aerospace and automotive, not surprising since these were among the first to begin implementing AM for this use. By 2018 more companies will outsource new end-part production to service bureaus than will tackle this internally. Other uses increasing during that time include trial/bridge production, tooling and patterns, and manufacturing tools. AM for prototyping will increase only 1%.
Over the next three years, more companies in aerospace and medical will grow their own in-house additive manufacturing (AM), while consumer and energy industries will be most likely to increase outsourcing of their AM needs. Technologies cited most often for outsourcing are those requiring more post-processing, such as laser sintering and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering). Regardless of their internal AM capabilities, most respondents said they expect to continue using outside service providers.
(Source: Stratasys Direct Manufacturing)
Most respondents said they expect to continue using outside service bureaus, regardless of their internal AM capabilities. More companies in aerospace and medical will grow their own in-house operations, due perhaps to the very tight controls they must have over these highly regulated products. Consumer and energy industries will most likely increase the outsourcing of their AM needs. The technologies cited most often for outsourcing are those requiring more post-processing, such as laser sintering and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering).
When it comes to materials, an overwhelming 84% of respondents said they want to see metals developed further for AM, across all industries, not just aerospace. This was followed by rubber-like materials, high-temperature plastic, carbon fiber, conductive-filled/circuitry materials, bio-based materials, and soluble materials.MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: 3DP in End-Production: What's It Gonna Take?
This popularity of metals AM was also reflected in survey takers' expectation that metal processes such as DMLS and EBM (electron beam melting) will nearly double in the next three years. Nearly three times as many users will turn to service providers for these technologies as will use them in-house. Considering how difficult implementation can be, and how expensive for extremely low quantities, this make sense. The greatest interest in metals AM comes from medical, oil and gas, and aerospace.
Common themes include growth of AM across multiple industries, the expansion of end-use applications, and an increasing demand for additive metals, said Allison. SDM is taking specific steps in response to the survey results. "We'll continue to champion end-use part production," he said. "We have to help customers develop their own part and process specifications, which results in a comprehensive set of design guidelines and process and material specs for each customer." SDM has also tripled its own capacity in additive metals over the last 12 to 15 months.
MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: 3D Print Complete Electronic Prototypes in A Few Hours?
Another theme was the high demand for knowledge shown by all respondents in their plans for transitioning from traditional manufacturing to AM. These included training designers and engineers, partnering with service providers, funding research or investing in AM development, and recruiting already experienced employees.
In response, Allison said SDM is scaling up its own expertise. For example, customers will now first contact a project engineer who can steer them toward the right technology. Applications engineers will provide customers with help optimizing 3D printing processes for their products. SDM is also expanding the capacity of its facilities. Most of this will be establishing advanced manufacturing centers for producing end-use parts to achieve economies of scale, such as with DMLS and FDM.
You can download the full report, "Trend Forecast: 3D Printing's Imminent Impact on Manufacturing," on this page.
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Ann R. Thryft is senior technology editor, materials & assembly, for Design News. She's been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 27 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, alternative energy, and robotics. In the past, she's also written about machine vision and all kinds of communications.