Additive manufacturing has surpassed all expectations in the last year. It has contributed to the fight against the pandemic and its demand for fast manufacture of protective equipment. It has also enabled the healthcare sector to innovate voraciously. Its value in orthopedics ($691 million in 2018) is about to reach $3.7 billion in the next six years. In the medical industry, additive manufacturing is worth $1.25 billion, be it hardware or software. In dentistry only, its revenue will reach $3.7 billion by the end of this year. The highest 3D printing adoption rate is in the USA, UK, France, China, and Germany, among other countries. While the USA has about 422,000 3D printing units, Germany incurred the highest profit (€1 billion) in additive manufacturing in 2019. The adoption rate of 3D printing by manufacturers has jumped from 21% in 2018 to 40% in 2019. With such rapid and widespread adoption of additive manufacturing, one may assume that the next few years will see immense growth in this sector.

And rightly so!

It can take manufacturing to a whole new level by increasing the speed and quality of production. With rapid prototyping, manufacturers will be able to deploy orders faster and at lower investments. The technology can transform entire business operations by developing constructive solutions and opening better more opportunities for independent contract manufacturers. Besides design and manufacturing, companies with experience in 3D printing will incorporate the technology into factory operations and regular workflow. As additive manufacturing gives creative exposure to the engineers to innovate, relationships between suppliers and customers will likely see drastic improvements. These innovations will further transform business operations through higher speed, operational efficiency, and lower costs. In other words, the technology promises to deliver bespoke experiences to the customers without unnecessary investment on the manufacturers’ part.

Let us give you valuable insight into how 3D printing will shape the manufacturing sector in the coming months.

How far has 3D printing arrived from its inception?

In the 1980s, 3D printing was just a mere fantasy or probably a dormant idea in the minds of futuristic researchers. Hideo Kodama, a researcher from Japan, devised a method to create a 3D product by depositing layers of material. But he failed to get a patent for his discovery. Meanwhile, the French General Electric Company with CILAS, a laser and optical technology manufacturer in France, also came up with a method to develop 3D products but aborted the project on not realizing any prospect. It was not before 1986 that Charles Hull, the American manufacturer (also known as the father of 3D printing), came up with the idea of Stereolithography and created a prototype with it. He patented his discovery, the first-ever SLA printer, and many companies joined the bandwagon of additive manufacturing after. The Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technologies were also developed during this period. The development and adoption of 3D printing took flight after its foundation was laid down by these 80s researchers.

At the beginning of the 90s, organizations began investing in Additive Manufacturing at a faster pace and even commercialized it. New and developed models of 3D printers were launched in the market for large-scale adoption. At first, wax materials were used to create 3D printed objects, mostly plastics, but soon, spraying and microcasting gained popularity not only for plastic but also metal objects. But the main challenge was the high costs of printing materials, and that is the reason the technology became popular with low-volume productions in the automobile, aerospace, and healthcare sectors.

The 2000s came with a promise of faster deliveries at low costs in 3D prototyping. By 2006, additive manufacturing had entered the mainstream with cost-effective 3D printers, and in 2009, the FDM patent comes to the public domain, thus enabling more companies to take advantage of it. A variety of low-cost and easily-accessible 3D printers in the market helped organizations turn their additive manufacturing ideas into reality. In the next few years, concepts like 3D printed kidneys and limbs became popular in the healthcare industry.

The next ten years witnessed a massive growth in the applications of 3D printing. Manufacturers started leveraging the technology to repair and replace parts and make up for inventory shortages. With the costs of 3D printers lowered, individual shop owners and independent manufacturers started using the technology without taking help from technology firms.

COVID-19 and additive manufacturing – How it helped in the fight

The true magic of 3D printing was revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Till then, market predictions pointed to a seamless growth of the disruptive technology, but no one ever expected it to be so fast. Thousands of masks, respirators, ventilators, valves, and other protective equipment were supplied by digital manufacturers using this technology. Every industry lauded their contribution in the fight against the first-ever pandemic in the 21st century. No wonder the value of the 3D printing industry is expected to reach $40 billion in the next three years!

In case you are wondering how the technology became so popular during the pandemic, let us enlighten you. In the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak, many countries witnessed a surge in demand for protective equipment. Be the frontline workers or the common public, masks, respirators, PPE kits, testing devices, and even ventilators were in short supply. It is then that 3D printing companies and independent manufacturers came to the rescue. With their digital versatility and faster prototyping advantage, additive manufacturing started supplying these products in bulk, and successfully too. We should not forget that customization is one of the greatest features of 3D prototyping, which helped in creating recyclable and reusable masks, respirators, and other emergency supplies. As a response to the concern of generating higher medical waste, these reusable protective materials proved worthwhile to fight the pandemic with little environmental impact.

It is needless to mention the urgency of the COVID-19 situation that required the health workers to get trained in new methods of testing and treatment. 3D printed life-size manikins and other training and visualization kits were provided to them within a short period to increase the speed and efficiency of training processes. Some of these manikins also offered enhanced visualization with transparent materials that revealed inner cavities and internal organs. It improved the efficiency of testing methods without causing discomfort to the patients.

The additive manufacturing technology also helped develop temporary emergency dwellings to reduce the burden on hospitals and healthcare centers. Being light and portable, these dwellings could easily be transported from one place to another.

However, no new technology ever came without its set of challenges. While there is no denying that 3D printing took the industry by storm during the pandemic, questions were raised about the quality of materials produced. If the manufacturers plan to use the technology in the future, which they do, it will require an increased focus on the quality and safety of 3D printed materials. Further, they should focus on improving technological suitability and increasing investment in certified materials.

This brings us to the next section, which is –

What are the future stages of development for 3D printing?

As more people turn towards 3D printing, high investments in this sector will be prevalent. The main challenges of the technology, i.e., material expansion and technological suitability, will be addressed by this move. Big players will join the bandwagon, bringing massive investments to the sector. An increased rate of adoption and experimentation will open new opportunities for the manufacturers, who will innovate like crazy using all sorts of materials. The technology will witness immense growth in the consumer industry, from developing spare parts to whole objects.

However, one should not assume that traditional manufacturing will become obsolete with the popularity of 3D printing breaking all records in the coming days. Casting, injection molding, or machining will still be there. But 3D printing will definitely make parts production way cost-effective than these traditional processes. Advanced metal binder jetting machines have already been developed to meet the high production demands for metal parts and small objects. While replacing traditional manufacturing is not the end-goal of additive manufacturing, it certainly looks forward to developing a more innovative and customized manufacturers’ future.

Another sector where the technology will see some improvements is in the availability of knowledgeable and skilled experts. Awareness and education are two big reasons preventing the large-scale adoption of 3D printing. However, it is going to change in the coming years. Companies are coming forward with extensive training programs to meet the demand for seasoned and qualified experts in additive manufacturing applications. As the knowledge gap is filled, investors will be ready to pour money in 3D printing technologies and level up the organization’s production scenario.

How can we help boost the 3D printing revolution?

At Additive Accelerator, we have a team of qualified and experienced professionals who understand every aspect of this technology and its applications. They have the knowledge and foresight to realize its potential for companies planning to adopt it to up their manufacturing or prototyping endeavors. As a result, our team can give you relevant solutions to address your 3D printing needs. They can also provide you with a detailed overview of which additive manufacturing technology will work best for your organization.

As the technology is still in its nascent stages, it is best to trust seasoned experts. There are umpteen technologies in this field, each suitable for different sectors of prototyping and manufacturing. If you do not have prior knowledge or understanding of 3D printing, you may end up investing more than you should. Talk to us! We promise to offer you not the most expensive solution but the best-fitted one.