What does 2020 hold for the world of 3D printing?


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The new year brings a fresh beginning, resolutions, and of course predictions. At Blueprint, we work with executives and engineers across the 3D printing industry and beyond. Based on our conversations and industry insight, here’s our perspective on what to expect in 2020.

We’re at an interesting inflection point, where additive is no longer an emerging technology. You’ll continue to see signs of a maturing industry: collaborations, mergers, acquisitions, and big-name entrants. Driving adoption of the technology will be buoyed by geopolitical factors but will always rely on education and a willingness of OEMs to collaborate with and understand their customers deeply.

For more detail, read on…

For both executives and engineers, education is the biggest barrier to additive adoption.

2020 is a tipping point for “industrial” and “production” additive manufacturing. The core to this tipping point will be education, both for executives and for the engineers and designers who engage with the technology every day. Executives will need to understand how 3D printing will impact their business and more importantly how to deliver and implement on the technology’s value. Engineers and designers will need to start to learn how to Think Additively™ and understand when to use and not to use the technology. Regardless, everyone will need to take a leap of faith and start piloting the technology for “production” additive manufacturing to become an everyday reality.

Trade uncertainty will increase the value 3D printing provides in streamlining supply chains.

That 2020 will bring increasing trade uncertainty is almost a certainty, given Brexit, instability in the middle east, and US trade wars. This presents an opportunity for 3D printing to drive value by streamlining supply chains. In a world where wars (trade and otherwise) can be started by a tweet, 3D printing will decrease exposures to uncertain tariffs or supply chain disruptions caused by escalating conflicts. Companies will increasingly have an appetite for paying a premium to produce parts lineside or at a local service bureau. Said another way, the need to be agile will outweigh the need to drive variable costs down. Businesses will be willing to accept higher per-part costs if they can reduce their exposure to fixed costs and uncertainty.

Merger and acquisition activity will increase.

We saw at Formnext that 2019 has been the year of new actors. But our back-of-the napkin calculations clearly demonstrate that the proliferation of new players is not sustainable. We have seen this pattern before—with personal computing, 2D printers, the dot-com boom… in the end the result is always the same: 3-4 large players and a handful of smaller companies, usually catering to a specific niche, survive. We think 2020 will be a year of agglomeration and acquisition. We will see smaller 3D printing companies merging or being acquired by bigger ones in order to expand faster and to reach other geographic markets. In addition, some manufacturing companies will make acquisitions in order to enter the market quickly, similar to how GE entered the market.

3D printing has matured. Developing solutions requires collaboration.

The start of the new decade will be markedly different to the previous 20 years as 3D printing is no longer the technology of the future.  With other emerging tech (e.g. AI, IoT Cloud, VR/AR) now capturing the attention (and budget) of business leaders and innovators, expect to see 3D printing take a back seat in c-suite conversations.  This will pressure 3D printing vendors, particularly enterprise providers who have the funds to purchase a 3D printing company and launch an offering under their own brand, to work far more collaboratively with individual businesses to co-develop (and showcase) machines, materials and software that can produce innovative applications. But applications are only part of the story… industrial companies need technology that integrates into existing engineering and production toolchains to create a digital thread. Collaboration with software providers (e.g. simulation, product lifecycle management, manufacturing engineering systems, and automation) will become table-stakes for additive in production at scale. The technology will no longer sell itself as it has in the last decade, and we believe 2020 will be the year this new reality will hit many 3D printing companies hard.

Deeper, more industry-specific solutions.

2020 will accelerate the shift from general equipment and materials products to end-to-end industry-specific AM solutions.  Solutions will go deeper… this is not the year for copycat technology. Successful OEMs will not only release new technologies, but also will think more about meeting requirements for key verticals like aerospace, automotive, medical, and mobility. For examples, look to the medical and dental industries. The medical world is using digital materials to create physical models of organs to displace cadavers in both training and research, and as a tool for practicing complex surgical procedures. For years, the dental industry has been using 3D printing to create molds for customized dental aligners. What do these two examples have in common? In both cases, industry worked with machine and material suppliers to develop solutions that were specific to their industry that could only be accomplished with 3D printing.

So, what now?

What does all of this mean for users of 3D printing technology? For providers? For consumers?

First, the days where a 3D printing startup can raise a few million dollars on a promise are over. Users need real, demonstrable value from their 3D printing deployments. Second, robust education offerings and research into new materials, technology and software that solve problems for customers will be key to both onboarding new users and expanding into niches where 3D printing can solve real problems.

If you are a newer user of 3D printing struggling to adopt the technology, focus on education. Understanding the landscape of technologies, techniques, and tools will be the biggest thing that you can do to get up and running. Invest in training your people. Remember, engineering time is expensive and the investment of a few thousand dollars in training to save months of experimentation and dithering is money well spent.

Finally, if you are a 3D printing power user, understand that it is the marriage of application and feasibility of business case that will enable your projects to scale. It is not enough to simply replicate geometries; you must find the things that 3D printing can do to make order-of-magnitude differences in your business, whether that is in cost, performance, or risk reduction. Look to unique combinations of materials, applications, and 3D printing technology to do this.

Looking at the 3D printing industry in 2020, one could look to the past and believe that the best days of the technology are behind us, but that view misses what we’ve learned over the past decades. 3D printing, as an industry and technology, has matured. Its promise is not in-home users producing trinkets (though this is a fun application), but in opening up opportunities that the economics of traditional manufacturing had previously precluded. We’re no longer folding paper airplanes; we’re building real ones. Cheers to 2020! The future of 3D printing is bright. Now let’s get to work!

This article is based on the insights from the engineers, designers, innovators, analysts and strategists on the Blueprint team.

Kunal Mehta is the head of Blueprint. His work has spanned both B2B and B2C as well as across multiple industries, leading strategic and operational transformation for his clients.

Aaron Hurd helps clients understand how additive manufacturing impacts their strategy, supply chain, engineering, and manufacturing processes.

Loic Le Merlus puts the numbers behind the hype, leading the development of algorithms that drive our proprietary analysis tools.

Oliver Smith adds the creative and entrepreneurial perspective to our group’s skillset, designing unique methodologies to help clients apply the benefits of 3D printing.

David Busacker has a wide-ranging 3D printing background spanning university teaching, application engineering, contract manufacturing and technical sales.

Blueprint is an additive manufacturing consultancy, bringing together more than 16 years of knowledge and experience across the industry. As the world’s leading additive manufacturing consultancy, Blueprint regularly assists future-ready companies achieve additive success. Based in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Milford, U.K, the firm offers a unique, technology-agnostic perspective on all things additive, from strategic advice to design optimization services. More information is available online at www.additiveblueprint.com.

If you want to discuss this article or your additive manufacturing strategy, the team at Blueprint is here to help. Let’s say hello.

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