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2022 Predictions: What Does the Year Hold for Large-Format 3D Printing?

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As a tumultuous 2021 comes to a close, SmarTech Analysis has predicted that the 3D printing industry is poised for its greatest level of growth yet. The key verticals and their momentous changes will be covered in depth at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies (AMS) summit March 1-3, 2022, but one that is particularly crucial for the future of the industry is large-format 3D printing. We’ve reached out to firms from the industry to provide their insight into this fast-growing sector.

According to the recently published “DED and Large-Format Additive Manufacturing Markets: 2021-2030” from SmarTech, large-scale metal 3D printing is getting even bigger. The leading additive manufacturing (AM) market research estimates that this sector will be worth $739 million in 2026. This makes sense given the range of activity we’ve seen in the last year alone.

For instance, Norsk Titanium (Euronext: NTI) joined the Euronext Growth Oslo market to continue funding its directed energy deposition (DED) technology for 3D printing titanium aerospace parts. Sciaky is developing simulation solutions for its electron beam DED systems with the help of Hexagon (Nasdaq Stockholm: HEXA B). Australia’s AM3D has reported a number of projects in which its DED equipment was used, including the “world’s largest” 3D printed shipboard fitting and a deal to print tooling for Boeing. Then, of course, there’s Relativity Space’s massive metal 3D printer, which is getting an increasing amount of use. And the fact that a domestic DED industry is developing in India, the quickest growing nation on the planet, bodes well for the technology.

However, it’s not only in the traditionally large world of DED that metal 3D printing is getting bigger. A number of laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) manufacturers are currently at work on or have already released machines with more than four lasers, indicating equipment with higher throughput for the production of large parts and large batches. Among them is VELO3D, sponsor of the Large-format AM vertical at AMS 2022.

With a 600mm x 550 mm build volume and eight 1kW lasers, VELO3D’s Sapphire XC can make parts five times larger than the firm’s predecessor and cut production costs by up to 80%. The machine is already shipping and customers already began printing parts in Q3 2021. As of its Q3 earnings report, the company noted that it had 17 XC orders worth $85 million in total bookings and pre-orders.

Zach Murphree, VP of Global Sales and Business Development at VELO3D, saw his company’s progress as a part of a larger trend for metal 3D printing:

“2022 will be the year of actualization of large format printing, particularly in LPBF. Large systems (>400mm build plates, 1000mm tall build volume) will start to ship in large numbers and be used in serial production in a way that will change the conversation around part cost structure and its effect on the viability of applications. I see the adoption of large-format printing driving a significant acceleration of metal AM adoption, particularly when coupled with quality assurance and advanced printing capabilities.”

But it’s not only in metal 3D printing where sizes are increasing. For some time, polymer machines have been getting bigger—namely when Cincinnati Incorporated and Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system. This saw a number of competitors, including Ingersoll, Thermwood, and CEAD, develop their own large format extrusion systems.

Most often, these types of systems rely on pellet feedstock to more affordably and rapidly process a wider variety of thermoplastics that manufacturers are already familiar with via injection molding. While these enormous machines have been used to 3D print such large structures as boat hulls and vehicle bodies, they see more practical application in the production of large-scale tooling.

Among the developers of large-format thermoplastic 3D printers, Thermwood has been consistently innovating with the architecture of its Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM) equipment, capable of printing over 40-feet in length. As a CNC maker, the company offers a trim head, necessary for milling these types of mega parts down to their final specifications. An optional Vertical Layer Print (VLP) Table allows for the production of not only super-long components, but items up to 10 feet tall, rather than the standard four feet possible with their machines. The latest option for LSAM machines is Angle Layer Printing (ALP) for VLP system, able to print at a 45-degree angle.

Thermwood Executive Vice President Jason Susnjara tells 3DPrint.com that these types of developments are going to continue throughout the next year:

“Large scale 3D printing has evolved rapidly over the past decade involving engineering, materials and software.  We are constantly looking for ways to further improve and enhance our current technology to give our customers even more capabilities in this emerging market.  We see a bright future for large format additive, and LSAM continues to be the market leader in 2022 and beyond.  We will continue to have many new developments to announce on the horizon that will make LSAM more powerful and easy to use.”

Beyond thermoplastics, we’re seeing photopolymers also growing in size. Namely, Chicago-based Azul 3D has kicked up the scale of continuous digital light processing (DLP) with its High Area Rapid Printing (HARP) technique. The startup claims that HARP is capable of 3D printing at 100 times the speed and 20 times the scale of other DLP systems, though it doesn’t specify whether this is compared to newer generation continuous DLP machines or legacy counterparts. It does say, however, that it can fill a build volume of 12” x 12” x 48” in just three hours.

Image courtesy of Azul 3D.

The company has already partnered with a major manufacturer, Wilson, to produce pickle ball rackets and has said that it plans on releasing an even bigger system than its LAKE printer, dubbed SEA. While LAKE is expected to ship in 2022, SEA will surely be unveiled next year as well, meaning that we can predict new case studies with similarly hefty names as Wilson.

“Large format 3D printing will continue to rapidly expand over the next several years. Technology with industrial scale and throughput, like our LAKE printer, is unlocking the needs of a new set of customers looking to economically localize production and increase capacity. Now more than ever, it is critically important that supply chains are re-engineered, and additive manufacturing will be the new standard,” Azul 3D CEO Cody Petersen told 3DPrint.com. “Expansion is happening across multiple new verticals. Manufacturing with additive is no longer a tool for only medical and aerospace applications. It is transitioning to a tool for the industrial and consumer markets. We anticipate that these will be the most exciting and highest growth markets in 2022 and 2023. We see considerably more customers taking on complex large-scale projects and expanding into larger, faster hardware with the industrial grade materials that make it possible.”

However, it isn’t only in more traditional manufacturing sectors that large-format 3D printing is making an impact. The past several years have seen the beginnings of an explosion in additive construction, with COBOD BOD-2 3D printers seemingly the most widely used around the world by the likes of the PERI Group and Holcim. They’ve printed homes for Habitat for Humanity and other partners in the U.S., Europe, and Africa. They’re not the only ones though. Competition is heating up, as ICON and Mighty Buildings in the U.S. embark on their own projects, including North America’s largest 3D printed structure and a simulation of a Mars habitat.

With companies as large as Holcim, Saint-Gobain, and Sika all participating in this emerging market, we can expect things to only get more exciting in 2022. Jan Graumann, Global Head of Business Development & Sales for 3D Construction Printing at PERI AG, told 3DPrint.com:

“Next year and the years thereafter we expect the number of 3D construction printing companies as well as the number of realized 3D-printing projects to continue to increase. The technology as proven its high potential to increase productivity in the construction industry and thereby address the global housing shortage. Additionally, we are convinced that 3D construction printing will more and more become a standard building method over the next years.”

Construction 3D printing is diversifying beyond concrete 3D printing to the point where we will see more and more varieties of the technology. Among the pioneers is Branch Technology, which 3D prints unique lattice works that can then be insulated and finished to create load-bearing walls.

The firm’s Chief Financial Officer, Dan Wykoff, explained how his firm is evolving in parallel with the construction sector, which is increasingly adopting modular and prefabricated elements to improve the speed and quality of the building process.

“3D printing provides tremendous efficiency through automation, material waste reduction, labor waste reduction, and more. Branch Technology’s 3D printing occurs offsite, which adds even more value by being able to 3D print components around the clock while eliminating downtime due to weather or lack of sunlight. Combine that with a lean manufacturing and automation mindset, and 3D printing has huge potential to decrease the cost of construction,” Wykoff said. “Branch Technology offers premium products at a normal price, and we are constantly developing new means and methods for becoming even more cost-effective through process automation and lean manufacturing.”

Of the firms involved in additive construction, Italy’s WASP may be the most unique in that it is pursuing innovative methods for making buildings from sustainable materials. After all, the global concrete sector represents the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the U.S. and China as nations. It’s also an outlier in that 3D printing homes has been the core of its mission from the start, with other 3D printers only developed to support its construction endeavors.

This year, the firm unveiled a dual printer system for construction used to 3D print a pair of structures from local and natural materials. Though I am still skeptical about the idea of additive construction for solving the world’s housing crisis, I do think that, if new buildings are going to continue going up, they should be built with as little ecological impact as possible. WASP’s project Tecla does just that and in probably the most aesthetically pleasing manner of any additive construction project. WASP Production Manager Nicola Schiavarelli told us what the company has in store for 2022 and beyond:

“WASP’s point of view has always been that of ‘large dimensions’, as the mission is to 3D print houses. Another point of view is the requests coming from the market which are increasingly turning towards large dimensions.The construction, aerospace, industrial, energy, medical sectors are in great motion to add additive manufacturing to production systems. Our new 3D printers brought to Formnext and the success they have enjoyed (we already have orders) are proof that the market is focusing on large sizes and types of material. In fact, the topic is not only the size but the materials. WASP is increasingly specializing in large dimensions both because it is in its DNA and because being able to print types of materials, fluid dense or superpolymers in large dimensions is an increasingly urgent demand on the market.”

It would be an unnecessary pun to say that 2022 will be big for large-format 3D printing, but that is the fact of the matter. The construction industry alone will see a great deal of activity from the likes of the PERI Group and COBOD, while laser PBF firms compete to release their multi-laser machines. DED continues its evolution, though at a slower rate than powder bed, and polymers are growing in scale, as well. With each year’s rapid development, things seem to be moving more quickly upon every December’s reflections. When we look forward to 2023, it won’t be surprising if we underestimated just how large this space has gotten.

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