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Predictions for the Future of 3D Printing

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3D printing proved itself early in the pandemic, making parts for medical equipment. Going forward, 3D printing will take a larger role in manufacturing.

Let’s look at 3D printing through 2020 and going forward. Dave Veisz, VP of engineering at MakerBot offers a view of how 3D printing grew through the pandemic. Ric Fulop, CEO at Desktop Metal will look at 3D printing’s future.

MakerBot, a subsidiary of Stratasys, recently released results from its 3D Printing Trends Report. The study included over 1,200 responses from professionals across multiple industries, from aerospace to medical and automotive. Key findings revealed that nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents are planning to invest in 3D printing technology in 2021, with 50% planning to spend up to $100,000.

Veisz noted that companies have changed their 3D print plans as a result of COVID-19. “According to the report, 56% of the survey respondents indicated that COVID-19 did not impact their investment plans, while 29% said it led to a decrease in planned investment and 15% indicated it increased their investment plans,” said Veisz.

3D Printing Became a Manufacturing Force During the Pandemic

3D printing came to the rescue early in the pandemic as companies used the technology to quickly produce PPE and ventilators. This had an impact on the perceived value of 3D printing. “The response from the 3D printing community was incredible. When supply chains broke down due to the pandemic, 3D printing was able to step in and prove itself out as a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing for critical components,” said Veisz. “The flexibility and speed of 3D printers were key in buffering the supply chain disruptions for PPE in hard-hit areas and fueled innovation for ‘printable’ designs for everything from face shields to respirators.”

MakerBot was one of the companies that jumped in to help. “Many of our customers put our banks of 3D printers to use, serving local needs until traditional supply chains could catch up, which took several months,” said Veisz. “It became clear that if 3D printing could be used to print PPE and ventilator parts, there are many other use cases where it can be a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing.”

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MakerBot 3D printer.

Looking for New Products and Materials

The report revealed interest in custom products. While many users view 3D printing as a way to create finished products, a good portion of the users have focused on research and development. “The report itself does not include why the respondents are anticipating new materials,” said Veisz. “However, in our conversations with users, we have learned that users are looking for high strength, high-temperature materials that can be used for end-use applications including jigs, fixtures, and robotic end-effectors.

Part of this research and development is occurring in materials. “Recent material launches like Polymaker's polycarbonate materials and Nylon 12 Carbon Fiber,” said Veisz. “These are high strength, high stiffness materials that have been added to the METHOD platform demanding applications that are beyond prototyping use cases.”

Predictions for 2021 and Beyond

As for the future of 3D printing, Desktop Metal's CEO and co-founder, Ric Fulop, offers some predictions:

Prediction 1: The Next Frontier for Additive Will Be Functional End-Use Applications and Mass Production

There is a long arc in the evolution of the additive manufacturing industry. We can do things now that people haven’t been able to do before. The 3D printing industry has been around for more than 20 years and it’s come into the prototyping and jigs and fixtures space with strong penetration. But we haven’t even scratched the surface.

Over the next year and into the coming decade, we will see growth from this sub-segment of jigs and fixtures and early use cases to mass production, spare parts, and functional end-use applications for components that were traditionally made with other manufacturing techniques. The industry is now mature enough that we can design machines that leverage these technologies into the products that people use every day.

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Desktop Metal 3D printer.



Prediction 2: 95-99% of Manufacturing Spend Will Move to Functional End-Use Parts

The first wave of 3D printing technology was primarily in the design validation, prototyping, jigs, and fixtures, making the factory more productive, and some tooling applications. If you look at the total manufacturing spend today, less than 5% is in prototyping, product development, or in tooling.”

In the next decade, we’ll see an exponential curve because the technology is more affordable, there are more use-cases, and more supply of raw materials. That opens up the application space. This also enables new markets that are going to end-use parts and spare parts.

Prediction 3: AM is Accelerating Greater Freedom of Product Design

One of the things that’s unique about additive manufacturing (AM) is that it frees you from the tyranny of tooling. Tooling lowers your per-piece part cost but gives you a big upfront cost and limits what your product can do with design. The great thing about AM is that we are now starting to do a design that is physics- or math-driven.

Now you can achieve the shape that you wanted, lightweight it to get the performance you need, and, with the latest design tools like generative design, you can do incredible things. When people look back on the 4th Industrial Revolution 50 years from now, they are going to be talking less about the Internet of Things and more about how we removed 30 to 50% of material that we had in automobiles and how everything has become more efficient.

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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