For 2017, we’ll also be taking a look ahead, as this year has been filled not only with commercialization and implementation, but introductions of what is to come. An undeniable theme of the year has been maturation in the additive manufacturing industry, and we have been travelling more than ever before to experience as much as possible first-hand. We’ve been tracking major hardware developments across 2017, as well as keeping tabs on what our readers consider the all-time most significant 3D printed objects to have been made, as well as what we thought they are. With ongoing growth in absolute terms in revenues, sales, and participation in 3D printing, the industry is growing up, particularly in terms of professional adoption and scientific developments. Many of the announcements made this year were highly anticipated as in-development technologies made their way onto the market; many others contained introductions of products yet to make it to market that will carry some weight of impact.
For our look at 17 top themes of ’17, we’ll be looking first at 10 top developments and areas of focus that came to fruition this year, followed by 7 announcements of what we can anticipate in the near- to intermediate-term future. These are in no particular order, and please note these are not ‘the top 17′ stories as a conclusive, comprehensive list that would be subjective at best anyway, but are 17 especially impactful areas of an unprecedented year in 3D printing growth.
10 Things and Themes That Shaped 2017
1. Innovation in open materials
On the industrial side, HP continued to up its focus on its innovative open materials platform for Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology, working with top global chemical companies and industry partners to create and offer best-in-class materials. On the extrusion side, we saw the announcement of the world’s first open source filament from IC3D and Aleph Objects, which may not have kicked up a lot of dust in 2017 but has major implications in and makes a big statement for the open source ethos.
2. Return to a focus on prototyping
A major theme seen early in the year and especially showcased at SOLIDWORKS World 2017, rapid prototyping is the once and future application for 3D printing. While many are driving home the message that additive manufacturing can be used for final part production — and, increasingly, it can — prototyping remains a critical part of the manufacturing process, and 3D printing retains great value here. Stratasys’ February introduction of its F123 series of 3D printers underscored a major release targeting prototyping, and has been paying off as company executives have told us that this is their biggest seller ever.
3. Rising focus on end-part production
Advances in the quality of available materials and hardware, along with increasingly sophisticated software and rising efforts in training, are making possible additive manufacture of end-use parts and products. Constraints in timing and cost still largely restrict this application to low-volume, high-end, or customized products in the near term, but increasing efforts across the industry are focusing on scale production. Metals and polymers alike are seeing advances here, including for demanding applications in aerospace and medical verticals.
From materials partnerships designed to change the physics of 3D printing to full keynotes and presentations focusing on co-creation at Materialise World Summit, collaboration is an undeniable force in the 3D printing industry. While competition remains healthy in the growing industry, working with complementary technologies and with like-minded partners is ultimately critical to the success of additive manufacturing itself as a real-world technology. No one company, material, technology, or application will be able to ‘do it all’, and as more companies have realized the importance of working with the best partners, 2017 has seen an ever-growing list of signatures on new partnership agreements.
5. Desktop Metal, Markforged, and accessible metal 3D printing
In January at CES, Markforged introduced its entrance to metal 3D printing with the Metal X 3D printer; in April, Desktop Metal unveiled its two metal 3D printing systems, the DM Studio and DM Production systems. The DM Studio System began shipping recently, bringing the first systems directly onto the market. These are by no means the only companies looking to bring metal additive manufacturing to a wider user base through more accessible price points and system sizes. Metal technologies are all the rage, and the availability of smaller, more user-friendly systems is creating both a point of adoption for metal 3D printing and systems that can meet user needs in a smaller footprint.
6. Metal 3D printing goes big
Office-friendly metal 3D printing has gained great traction this year, but larger, production systems have their place in manufacturing. Introductions this year have included meter-class systems, including Project A.T.L.A.S. from GE Additive and ADIRA‘s ‘largest metal part 3D printer’. Advances in machines and metals have continued, allowing for new strength and properties, and faster speeds, and featured majorly in some of the biggest 3D printing events on the calendar, including RAPID, TCT Show, and formnext. Use cases that highlight metal 3D printing have included Siemens’ award-winning gas turbine blades and the class-approved ship propeller, WAAMpeller, as well as a luxury toothbrush, if you’re into flashy dental hygiene.
7. 3D printing steps more firmly into footwear
Carbon and adidas. EOS and Under Armour. HP and FitStation. Wiivv. Feetz. New footwear-focused material from EnvisionTEC. Prodways and Nike. 3D printing took huge strides in the footwear industry in 2017, with prototyping, insoles, midsoles, customized, and scale production in sight and no signs of this being a fleeting trend.
8. Millionth desktop 3D printer sold
Sales figures give concrete evidence of adoption rates, and 2017 saw the sale of the millionth desktop 3D printer. Sold in the Netherlands, the milestone machine may not have been the exact one-millionth due to variabilities in reporting, kits sold, and the like, but this sale represents a very close approximation of that landmark number. Adoption is rising around the world, and usage of desktop machines is broadening among designers, manufacturers, makers, artists, hobbyists, scientists, and more.
9. Medical models come to more hospitals, more realistically
Hospitals are turning to 3D printing, and one of the biggest applications having an immediate impact on both physician planning/training and patient care is through patient-specific 3D printed anatomical models. Whether used for pre-surgical planning with a lifelike simulation of real human organs or a deeper look at patient anatomy that can also educate the patient on their own condition and care, exact replicas of human body parts offer an inside look that is saving lives.
Recently, the #3DBenchy was designated the most 3D printed model in the world. The familiar little boat first appeared in 2015, from Creative Tools and designer Daniel Norée, offering a way to test calibration for 3D printers and a direct comparison between different machines and settings to see how given parameters affect, for example, overhangs and holes. In 2017, the boat was almost ubiquitous, featuring at most 3D printing events in a variety of sizes, colors, and materials, from tiny metal Benchies to toddler-sized plastic Benchies and everything in between. The significance of the most-printed designation along with the ubiquity of a single design as a universal calibration test keeps #3DBenchy as an important part of the 3D printing world.
7 Introductions from 2017
11. HP announces intent to introduce metal and full-color plastic 3D printing
Big names make big announcements, and HP has been buckling down and going big. Following the launch of Jet Fusion 3D printers on the market, HP Inc. isn’t content to let black nylon remain the extent of its material offerings. The company will soon be enhancing its polymeric capabilities with full-color plastic 3D printing at a lower cost in a new platform. In a longer-term development, HP will also be releasing its own metal 3D printing system — and not one built on any “me-too” technologies already on the market. The October announcement of the next big moves has been followed up with affirmation from the company and its partners, but not with details of timelines or technologies.
12. GE introduces prototype of binder jetting system
Another upcoming metal additive manufacturing system intriguing the industry is the just-introduced H1 binder jetting system from GE Additive. During an exclusive preview of the prototype machine, I talked with the GE Additive team behind the 47-day project that will be the first system in a new product line for the company. The binder jetting system will be making its way into users’ facilities by mid-2018, keeping up with the quick pace of development, and represents GE Additive’s first step into its own developed technologies outside those acquired from Concept Laser and Arcam — the first step of what is likely to be many.
13. 3D printing in and for space
2017 saw more movement toward in-space 3D printing — already a reality on the International Space Station — as the technology proves its value for low-waste manufacturing and localized production. 3D printing of spare parts and medical tools, as well as of rocket engine components and eventually extraterrestrial habitats, sees additive manufacturing firmly establishing itself as a major technology of the future of space travel and exploration, allowing for lower-weight and lower-cost production in space.
3D printing living tissue still sounds like science fiction, and undoubtedly has a long ways to go before scientists are able to bioprint a new organ for a patient awaiting a life-saving transplant procedure — if that day ever arrives at all. Still, today’s realities lead to tomorrow’s groundbreaking developments, and bioprinting is in focus throughout many of the world’s top research organizations. In 2017, we’ve seen advances toward 3D printed creations reducing the need for animal testing; work in 3D printed skin for cosmetic testing and wound care; regenerating damaged heart tissue; and more. For now, drug testing remains perhaps the primary application for bioprinting. Technology continues to advance and become more established, such as the well-studied EnvisionTEC Bio-Plotter, as research interest and efforts more frequently converge toward bioprinting.
15. Construction: 3D printed buildings and bridges
3D printing is also seeing major advances in external structures, as construction applications picked up in 2017. From 3D printed bridges unveiled in China and the Netherlands to 3D printed buildings in Russia, Denmark, and the US, and research, proposals, and works in progress in Iraq, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, the US, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and Canada, construction-focused additive manufacturing is entrenching itself as a rising reality. While few of the 3D printed structures are more than demonstrators or concepts, several are usable or inhabitable today, and proponents are looking toward sustainable, localized construction as a growing application for 3D printing.
16. Intellectual property, regulations, and other legalities of a digitizing world
3D printing and associated technologies involved in Industry 4.0 are seeing the world quickly embracing a digital future. Because the world isn’t all sunshine and 3D printed rainbows, new developments require new looks at the regulatory environment across a variety of industries. In 2017, we took a look at the 3D printing patent landscape, successfully defended ourselves in an IP- and freedom-of-the-press-related legal dispute, attended a legal-oriented conference for perspective, and heard about how the 3D design community can protect its IP. Intellectual property has been in focus, and will remain in the spotlight as the Wild West mentality of 3D printing fades with business growth. From the European Parliament to NYU researchers to maritime collaborators, many are devoting resources to the preservation of IP, while medical regulations are also coming into play with new FDA guidance and attention that impacts medical professionals as well as 3D printer manufacturers; Underwriters Laboratories has been studying health effects of 3D printing and offering safety training courses; and issues such as the proposed repeal of Net Neutrality impact the industry.
As the business of 3D printing changes shape, so too do the dynamics of its makeup. 2017 has seen an increased focus on the diversity of the 3D printing industry, an area that many manufacturers and industry insiders have noted as one that could use a boost. While we often discuss gender equity as a major issue — and it is absolutely one that still needs focus — overarching issues of diversity encompass many aspects of the makeup of a team. A more diverse company will benefit from different ways of thinking and different approaches to challenges, ultimately benefiting the entire process. A more inclusive and sustainable approach to business is emerging as key to executive strategies in this industry, and we look forward to this as an ongoing trend.
2017 has been a year of great change and growth for 3D printing, including some major themes and technologies that have arisen over the last 12 months. We look forward to continuing to look back at major milestones of the year, as well as ahead to what promises to be a dynamic and evolving 2018.
Discuss this story and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your comments below.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]