Industrial 3D printing matures but faces steep climb ahead

Industrial 3D printing vendors are bolstering their products just as use cases and factors such as supply chain disruptions show the technology's usefulness.

The 3D printing industry has played a small but important role in manufacturing. But advances in the technology might soon make it an option for mass production with new advances in hardware, materials and software.

Advances in technology aside, industrial 3D printing, which is used in manufacturing to create prototypes or production parts, faces challenges to more widespread adoption. Industry insiders believe that it will never compete with traditional manufacturing in scale.

Estimates on the size of the 3D printing or additive manufacturing industry vary. But experts agree there has been steady growth over the years.

"Wohlers Report 2024," an annual report produced by Wohlers Associates, a 3D printing consultancy in Fort Collins, Colo., places the industry's total current value at $20 billion -- an increase of 11% over the previous year's estimate. The market value includes 3D printing machines and related hardware; materials, primarily metals and polymers; software; and services.

Additive Manufacturing Research, a 3D printing consulting firm in New York City, sets the 3D printing industry value at almost $15 billion in 2023 and estimates that it will grow to $58 billion by 2032.

This still represents a fraction of the overall market for manufacturing hardware, software and services, which is estimated at just over $15 trillion by global research firm Statista.

Find the right fit for 3D printing

It's clear that 3D printing has a part to play in manufacturing, but one challenge for the industry is the lack of clarity around what role it's best suited for, said David Lakatos, chief product officer for Formlabs, a 3D printing company in Somerville, Mass. Many are under the impression that 3D printing can replace traditional injection molding manufacturing, which confuses the issue because the processes target different use cases.

When companies need to make things quickly -- perhaps to respond to supply chain disruption shortages, it makes sense to use 3D printing, Lakatos said. But it does not make sense for mass steady state manufacturing.

"Manufacturing is about different processes and components working together to make a final product, and 3D printing needs to have part in it, but in very specific places," he said. "Injection molding is really good for very high-volume plastics manufacturing, but 3D printing is good if you want complex parts and lower volume production. Not everything is made at 10 million parts a year."

The growth of 3D printing depends on the industry segment and use cases, Lakatos said. Healthcare, for example, is an industry that is ideal for the customization that 3D printing enables. Products such as dentures or artificial hips can be tailored to a patient, whereas a product like sunglasses can have some customizations but doesn't need to fit perfectly.

The economic case for 3D printing is largely derived from the cost it takes to produce the part, which includes the materials, machines and labor, he said. The more 3D printing can lower its costs per part, the more use cases it will find.

To reduce labor costs, Formlabs is introducing automation to its 3D printing processes, according to Lakatos. The company is also working on ways to lower the overall cost of parts, compared to traditional manufacturing, by reducing labor costs, material costs and machine costs.

This is particularly applicable for use cases like medical or orthodontic parts and for mass customizations, where companies produce large quantities of customer-specific parts or products, like customized dashboards for cars, he said.

This graphic shows some of the benefits and challenges of 3D printing for manufacturers.
Pros and cons of industrial 3D printing.

Need for resiliency drives adoption

In the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptions to supply chains and geopolitical tensions have put the resiliency of manufacturing and the supply chain front and center. Factors like these are contributing to the trend of more 3D printing adoption, according to Shai Terem, president and CEO of Markforged, an industrial-focused 3D printing vendor in Waltham, Mass.

"We're at the 'crossing the chasm' stage for additive," Terem said. "In the past, there were the early adopters on the factory floor who wanted to take more risks and [experiment with the technology]. But now there's a mainstream push for adoption of additive manufacturing on the factory floor."

The use of 3D printing for production parts has not crossed into the mainstream, but it is getting closer, he said. This is in part because the discussions have changed from a bottom-up perspective, where plant managers needed to be convinced to try it, to a top-down perspective, where COOs push for more cost savings.

The shift from 'why' to 'how'

This top-down perspective, where operations executives argue for the adoption of more 3D printing, indicates a maturing of the market now, according to Bart Van der Schueren, CTO at Materialise, a 3D printing company in Leuven, Belgium. More companies are using service providers to print parts on demand, but there's also more insourcing by companies to 3D print their own parts, he said.

"We're seeing that trend and believe that the trend is more sustainable than ever because manufacturing or product companies are starting to realize the value of 3D printing," Van der Schueren said. "In the past 10 to 15 years, companies asked a lot of questions on why they would 3D print other than for prototyping where the value is obvious. But we're seeing a shift from the 'why' to the 'how.'"

For some manufacturers, reducing costs and meeting sustainability goals fulfill the "why" aspects for 3D printing, he said.

For example, 3D printing can help aerospace manufacturers produce parts that are lighter and designed in a way that lowers the weight of the aircraft to operate more efficiently. This lowers the amount of energy needed to run a jet engine, reducing the overall environmental impact of the engines.

However, Van der Schueren added, sustainability claims still must be regarded carefully.

"In conventional manufacturing, the cost of making products lighter increases the costs and waste because you have to chip more material away," he said. "There's less waste with 3D printing, but we have to be careful about claims that 3D printing is by default a more sustainable technology. It depends on how you use it. But in many cases, you can maximize the amount of raw materials."

3D printing must integrate with traditional manufacturing

One aspect that has spurred more industrial use of 3D printing is its integration with traditional manufacturing processes and systems, Van der Schueren said.

To this end, Materialise is developing software with open APIs that can connect to enterprise systems such as ERP, product lifecycle management, manufacturing execution system (MES) and quality control.

Formlabs also builds workflows into its ecosystem and uses APIs to connect with ERP and MES systems to track and trace all the parts in the system, Lakatos said, adding that software will provide as much long-term competitive advantage as the machines themselves. Formlabs' Fleet Control software lets users control banks of 3D printers to spread jobs out.

"Nobody cares about the 3D printer; it's just a tool," he said. "We need to be very efficient at how to go as fast as possible from whatever you designed as a 3D model to a part."

For example, if BMW wants to use 3D printing to create customized dashboards in its cars, Lakatos said, the limiting factor is not the 3D printers. It's the ability to get the data from the customer to the manufacturing line and then printing the part that meets specifications and is traceable.

"That's all software," he said. "This is where 3D printing moves from being a cool thing on your desk to something that can be used for serious work."

Markforged is also focusing on the software aspects of industrial 3D printing with its Digital Source inventory system. Introduced in 2023, Digital Source is a digital catalog of part designs that manufacturers can use to print on demand, Terem said.

Manufacturers can use this to avoid line shutdowns if machine parts wear down or break, he said.

The rise of mid-range 3D printers

A rise in mid-range 3D printers is also fueling growth, according to Van der Schueren. In the past, 3D printers were primarily either high-end machines used to make production-grade parts for airplanes or medical devices or low-cost machines that produce prototypes or lower quality parts.

"This gap is being filled in the past years by mid-range machines that are affordable but can generate parts to a sufficiently high standard for a wide range of products," he said.

Use cases will drive more 3D printing growth, Van der Schueren said. For example, foldable cell phones haven't taken off because the hinge often fails. This could change with the use of a titanium hinge, which is difficult to produce with traditional machining but can be done with 3D printing.

"If you can control the costs of the technology, the applicability of 3D printing goes beyond the small volumes or mass customization parts," he said. "Once that trend starts, it will be unstoppable because you have design freedom and you can use materials that are difficult for more conventional technologies."

Challenges for industrial adoption

Part quality is one of the significant factors that holds back more widespread industrial 3D printing, according to experts.

Quality control is complicated in 3D printing because the printer is not just creating the shape of a part, but it also creates the material properties, Van der Schueren said. This means every part has unique properties and potentially unique defects.

Manufacturing is about different processes and components working together to make a final product, and 3D printing needs to have part in it, but in very specific places.
David LakatosChief product officer, Formlabs

Improved quality control software addresses this issue, he said. Materialise has launched software tools and services that assess the quality of components in the machines.

"Quality control has existed in 3D printing, but it was a manual process. Now technologies like machine learning and AI make this automatic," Van der Schueren said. "When a print is finished, this gives reports to the operators that some parts meet quality standards, other parts have defects and can be scrapped. And others may have questions, so they can go to advanced quality control."

Markforged's quality control efforts focus on the traceability of material to ensure high quality and consistency in parts, according to Terem.

There's also a considerable knowledge and skills gap that must be overcome for more adoption of industrial 3D printing, Terem said. Most of the current decision-makers on factory floors did not have 3D printers when they were in high school or college, but a new generation coming into manufacturing management had them in their labs.

"There's more acceptance for it now," he said. "This will help push the move from design for manufacturing to design for additive manufacturing. So we'll see more parts that are designed to be 3D printed from the start."

Jim O'Donnell is a senior news writer for TechTarget Editorial who covers ERP and other enterprise applications.

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