Additive manufacturing or 3D printing was often called a futuristic technology, but even today, it is already being used in a wide variety of industries, and it’s still growing. Does this mean that the future is already here?
Additive manufacturing is a process in which 3D parts are created from a computer-aided design(CAD) by successfully adding material, layer by layer until the whole piece is complete.
3D printing technology has been around since the 1980s, but the widespread use of technology started around the year 2010. Since then, the growth of 3D printing technology has been rapid due to the advancement in machinery, material, software, convenience and most importantly the growth of knowledge around the application of 3D printing.
Today, additive manufacturing technology is being used in a wide range of businesses – including automotive, tooling, medical, manufacturing, dentistry, education, entertainment, jewelry, and audiology – further enabling the expansion of 3D printing technologies worldwide.
Key Trends in Additive Manufacturing
Prototyping to Production
Additive manufacturing is shifting from prototyping a design to direct production. For many, the early utilization has commonly focused on prototyping with additive manufacturing. Still, as the technology is advancing more and more, enterprises have started to move additive manufacturing into production. Instead of 2-3 prototyping tools, industries are setting up 10-100 3D printing machines for production.
Different manufacturing companies like Additive Industries, EOS, and Concept Laser are integrating automation with additive manufacturing technologies to increase the efficiency of the production and minimizing risk.
Metal 3D Printing
3D printing has started with plastic and silicon printing, but metals have always been a priority for the additive manufacturing market. Metal printing offers a wide variety of exceptionally high performance and complex parts manufacturing with different metals, including steel, nickel alloys, titanium, and aluminum. Industries where these types of intricate designs are required, such as aviation, medical devices industry, are benefitted with the 3D metal printing.
The commonly used processes are selective laser melting (SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The working principle is similar to the plastic 3D printer, by creating objects from a thin layer of powdered metal and selectively melting using a laser.
Material cost and availability are two of the primary concerns when it comes to adopting 3D printing in production. No surprise then to see a manufacturing giant such as Jabil, to open a material innovation center to start producing printing material.
Apart from that, lightweight, durable materials and thermally resistent materials are highly valuable in industries like automotive, aerospace, medical, prototyping, and industrial goods.
There’s also scope in the bio-printing sector to print human tissues and organs. If successful, it will open up a lot of opportunities in the 3D printing sector.
Software Revolution for Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing works well when the software, hardware, and materials are closely aligned with each other. Software built for subtractive processes will not be able to design and work with the additive process. For that, new types of software are developed and are coming into the market.
In the future, it is possible that the 3D printing industry will specialize in two parts – hardware and software – instead of being a full-stack AM company. As technology advances, the software and hardware are getting more complicated to get a foothold. However, if a full-stack company appears, it will be for small scale complex manufacturing like bio-printing because it does not consist of heavy hardware as industrial AM do.
Design revolution is relevant for small complex manufacturing. Intricate geometrical designs are tough to create by traditional manufacturing. However, with 3D printing and design software, there are unlimited opportunities to design a product. There’s a trend for more advanced design software to create more complicated designs.
Another trend in additive manufacturing is the use of additive and subtractive manufacturing together. When there is a need for high precision and complexity, additive manufacturing can be used, and subtractive manufacturing is used where the design doesn’t require too many modifications. With the help of both technologies, productivity and precision can be achieved more uniformly.
We can see more trends such as mass customization, automation, customer integration, and many more into 3D printing.
3D printing has a wide range of use cases in different industries. However, there are two industries where additive manufacturing sees growth and success. They are the Aerospace Industry and Medical Industry.
In Aerospace Industry
Aerospace is a highly critical industry where safety and optimum performance are the top priorities. Constant innovation is happening in the aerospace industry, and additive manufacturing helps in prototyping and testing new technologies.
This immense growth is due to the numerous benefits additive manufacturing gives to the aerospace industry – including cost reduction, weight reduction, part reduction, rapid prototyping, and more.
For example, in 2012, GE Aviation and Morries Technologies collaborated to test the capabilities of AM technologies. They managed to reduce the number of parts of a jet engine component from 20 to one, leading to a 25% weight reduction. Similarly, helicopter manufacturer Bell Helicoptors uses additive manufacturing to prototype the components of their aircraft and also produce flight-certified parts for their commercial flights.
All these companies rely on the ability to modify the design of a product in additive manufacturing quickly. In traditional manufacturing, changing design is a very time and resource-consuming job, but in additive manufacturing, you just have to change the CAD file. It’s a lot simpler and cost-effective.
In the Medical Industry
Medical industry is another field that is greatly benefitted by additive manufacturing. It is estimated that the global healthcare additive market will witness a 20.85% CAGR growth within 2019-2026. The future of the medical industry is in nano-scale medication and 3D printing tissues and organs. However, nowadays, 3D printing is mostly used to produce critical specialized surgical instruments, medical devices, and implants.
For example, the bone structure of every person is different. So, additive manufacturing can help make the perfect patient-specific design with an exact fit when a bone implant is needed. It means shorter surgery, lesser discomfort, and quicker recovery for the patient. We are still in the beginning phase of the development of additive manufacturing.
As the technology matures, more and more new applications of additive manufacturing will be discovered. However, one of the main challenges of additive manufacturing is the mindset of the workers. Additive manufacturing definitely has some learning curve.
Before integrating it into the manufacturing process, the designers and engineers are needed to re-train, so that they can understand the function of the machines and think in terms of design-driven manufacturing – with unlimited design freedom. Only then, additive manufacturing will reach its full potential.