Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as three-dimensional (3D) printing, is rapidly moving from fringe technology to mainstream process in manufacturing and industrial circles. Two recent reports note the growing acceptance of 3D printing by manufacturers. Whether the printing material of choice is liquid plastic, resins, composites or metal powder, additive manufacturing is becoming a popular method for making prototypes, among other parts and products.
AM or 3D printing “involves the creation of a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model. This object can be almost any shape and size. An additive process is necessary during 3D printing, whereby different shapes are achieved by the laying down of successive layers of material,” explains the 3D Printing Association, based in Holland. In traditional or ‘subtractive’ manufacturing, parts and products are made by machining and cutting away material.
Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm based in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been releasing annual reports about the state of the 3D printing industry for over two decades –almost since the technology became commercially viable.
“In 2017, the AM industry, consisting of all AM products and services worldwide, grew 21 percent to $7.336 billion. The growth in 2017 compares to 17.4 percent growth in 2016 when the industry reached $6.063 billion and 25.9 percent growth in 2015. The total industry estimate of $7.366 billion excludes internal investments from the likes of Airbus, Adidas, Ford, Toyota, Stryker, and hundreds of other companies large and small,” states the 2018 Wohlers Report, which was released in March of this year.
This growth is being driven by a surge in the number of companies making and buying 3D printing equipment.
“Wohlers Associates found that 135 companies around the world produced and sold industrial AM systems in 2017 up from 97 companies in 2016. These systems are defined as machines that sell for more than $5,000. New system manufacturers are entering the AM market at a dizzying pace while releasing machines with open material platforms, faster print speeds, and lower pricing,” states the report.
Metal 3D printing – a process that uses metal powder in the printing process – is a particularly popular option. According to the Wohlers document, “an estimated 1,768 metal AM systems were sold in 2017, compared to 983 systems in 2016, an increase of nearly 80 percent. This dramatic rise in metal AM system installations accompanies improved process monitoring and quality assurance measures in metal AM, although more work is ahead.”
Forbes magazine estimates that over half-a-million desktop 3D printers or systems of all kinds have been sold worldwide in recent years.
Sculpteo, a French company specializing in digital manufacturing, offers some light on what companies are doing with their 3D printers. In ‘The State of 3D Printing – Edition 2018,’ Sculpteo summarizes the results of a survey of companies that use additive manufacturing technology. The report gleans insights and information from over one thousand respondents. Seventeen percent of these respondents were in the industrial goods sector, while seven percent were in aerospace or aeronautical, and five percent were in automotive, with the remainder in fields such as healthcare, consumer goods, and technology.
“Investment in 3D printing [has] exploded,” states the report. “Ninety-three percent of our respondents are seeing 3D printing as a competitive advantage and this percentage keeps growing every year… Seventy percent of our respondents increased their expenses in 3D printing in 2017 (Last year only forty-nine percent indicated that they had invested more in additive manufacturing).”
Some seventy-four percent of respondents said their competitors were using 3D printing, up from fifty-nine percent in the last survey.
“Once again, it shows that more and more companies are implementing additive manufacturing in their strategy,” notes the Sculpteo document. “It is now a reliable and common production or prototyping process for many businesses.” Cost decreases and improved technology are two of the reasons behind the greater embrace of 3D printing.
The most popular uses of 3D printing were prototyping, production, and proof-of-concept models. Some fifty-five percent of respondents said they used 3D printing for prototyping parts and products, while forty-three percent said they used the technology for production purposes. Forty-one percent said they used 3D printing to produce proof-of-concept models.
At present, 3D printing is not typically used for mass-production purposes. While the technology is improving all the time, 3D printing remains a relatively slow, expensive procedure. Unless a manufacturer was very wealthy and very patient, it is unlikely they would use 3D printing for a production run involving millions of parts. Mass production scenarios will only be realistic in the future.
Plastic is still the most popular material for doing 3D printing, but metal printing is catching up, states Sculpteo. “This year, thirty-six percent of our respondents are using metal 3D printing compared to twenty-eight percent last year. In the same way, the use of the direct metal laser sintering technology is significantly increasing; twenty-one percent of our respondents are using this metal 3D printing technology, and it keeps increasing,” states the Sculpteo report.
Trends that will have a major impact on 3D printing in the future include continued cost decreases, the rise of metal printing, increased speed and accuracy, and developments in materials, says Sculpteo.
As a technology, 3D printing can trace its roots to the advent of something called stereolithography (SL) in the 1980s. The process was developed by Charles Hull, who later co-founded the company, 3D Systems. Hull came up with the “a uniquely designed 3D printing machine, called a stereolithograph apparatus (SLA),” which converted “liquid plastic into solid objects,” explains the website Livescience.com.
While others were working on similar concepts, Hull patented the SL process in 1986. Over the years, other 3D printing technologies such as fused deposition modelling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS) were introduced. No matter what process is used, 3D printing almost always starts with a three-dimensional digital model created on a computer-aided design (CAD) file. The 3D printer reads the CAD file, then the task of turning the 3D representation into a real part or product, with liquid plastic, metal powder, or other materials begins.
The SL process introduced by Charles Hall remains popular today, while the company he co-founded topped a list of leading 3D printing firms released May 2018. As compiled by financial website InvestingNews.com, the top five global firms in the 3D printing trade are 3D Systems, ExOne, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Materialise NV, and Nano Dimension.
3D Systems is the grand-daddy of 3D printing companies. This Rock Hill, South Carolina-based firm introduced the first commercial 3D printer – the SLA-1 stereolithography printer – in 1987. The firm currently boasts a market capitalization of $1.40 billion and offers design and engineering, manufacturing, 3D scanning, and healthcare services.
In June 2018, 3D Systems released the new DMP Dental 100 and DMP Flex 100 metal 3D printers. The DMP Flex 100 can produce precision metal parts, made from titanium and other materials and offers improved throughput compared to previous 3D Systems metal printers. The dental part printer DMP Dental 100 can print ninety crown copings in less than four hours.
Based in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania and launched in 2005, ExOne has a market cap of $103.69 million. “ExOne uses proprietary binder jetting technology developed at MIT to print complex parts utilizing industrial-grade materials. This unique heatless technology uses a liquid binding agent that bonds layers of material to form an object. Some materials that have been used include metals, sands, and ceramics,” states InvestingNews.com.
High-tech Hewlett-Packard (HP) from Palo Alto, California is not a 3D printing company per se but has enthusiastically embraced the concept. The firm’s market cap for all products and services is $36.14 billion. HP uses a 3D technique called multi-jet fusion and launched a 3D open materials and applications laboratory in Oregon in March 2017 to conduct 3D printing-related research and development.
Materialise NV, a software company in Belgium, is another significant player in this field, with a market cap of $588.26 million.
Nano Dimension is an Israeli company that has a market cap of $26.63 million. Its current key product is the DragonFly 2020 Pro 3D printer, which is designed to 3D print electronics.
Besides private businesses, there are other organizations that promote 3D printing. America Makes of Youngstown, Ohio, for example, describes itself as “the nation’s leading and collaborative partner in additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing (3DP) technology research, discovery, creation, and innovation. Structured as a public-private partnership, we innovate and accelerate AM/3DP to increase our nation’s global manufacturing competitiveness.”
America Makes is eager to grow the 3D workforce. To this end, it operates the ‘Innovation Factory’ in Youngstown, which offers hands-on learning and training events for people interested in 3D printing technology. America Makes sponsors research and, with other organizations, is involved with an initiative called The Advanced Curriculum in Additive Design, Engineering and Manufacturing Innovation (ACADEMI). ACADEMI consists of various training initiatives to “help speed the transfer of business and technical knowledge for additive manufacturing (AM) technologies to industry,” states America Makes.
Certainly, if the ‘Wohlers Report 2018’ and ‘The State of 3D Printing – Edition 2018’ reports are anything to go by, that transfer is already happening at a remarkably fast clip.