Future of AM: 3D Printing Experts Talk Mass Production Issues


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What is the future of 3D printing? Away from the hype and Wall Street, what are we actually going to be able to do? What are the challenges in additive manufacturing (AM)? Will we be a niche application technology? Or will we be used in conjunction with mass production? Will we be used everywhere? Or only in a few industries? We asked some key leaders in the 3D printing industry to think about the future of AM, and have compiled their responses

We used to believe that 3D printing would replace traditional manufacturing wholesale. Now, this is no longer the case. 3D printing consultant Oliver Smith of ReThink Additive noted:

“AM will never replace high-volume manufacturing in a like-for-like scenario, i.e., producing the same parts with 3D printing instead of injection molding. Where it will almost certainly become a large-scale manufacturing technology will be when we innovate and design products and applications where the capabilities of 3D printing either massively compress the process chain or add hugely superior functionality that cannot be matched by conventional production methods. For instance, ergonomically customized orthotics and prosthetics, orthopedic implants with highly tuned lattice structures or direct dental aligners produced directly from digital scan data.”

Here, Oliver is focusing on use cases where 3D printing actually makes sense. An easily overlooked point he makes is that AM could be very useful in cases in which we “compress the process chain.” Not only time advantages can make our technology significant. We could also benefit from places in which space, or the number of steps, or waiting for tooling, or the capital needed, or the number of parties needed would be too great with conventional alternatives. That is something not often so holistically viewed.

One could really miss a lot of the key advantages of AM if one just looks at this as though time is the only process-related variable. Think of 3D printing on the moon, in clean rooms, aboard oil platforms, in top-secret projects, in ITAR or other cumbersome regulatory regimes and you’ll see more advantages than just “faster.”

Oliver’s second point of adding superior capabilities to a part is almost orthodox now, with many believing that key geometric advantages, such as unique structures or N=1 products, are a key element to our future. However, if we want to really manufacture these things at scale, what are the challenges?

A complex fluid manifold, optimized through 3D printing. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems)

Dr. Brent Stucker, Chief Scientist of 3D Systems, told 3DPrint.com:

“Traditional manufacturing is fast and cheap once a custom mold or tool has been made for a certain geometry and/or once a milling machine has been programmed to make a specific part. This is particularly true for simple shapes. For complex shapes or parts made at low volume, AM is already competitive. But, AM needs to become faster and cheaper to compete with traditional mass manufacturing of simple shapes.

One of the challenges to AM is that many designers were taught to design parts with traditional manufacturing constraints in mind. This leads designers to create complex systems as a collection of simple parts assembled. For manufacturing with AM to be better than traditional manufacturing, designers should take into account the ability of AM to make extremely complex geometries as an integrated, single build in an AM machine. The more designers push the envelope of enhanced performance and parts consolidation by taking advantage of its ability to deliver complex geometries, the more AM makes sense rather than traditional manufacturing.”

AM fuel combustor. Image courtesy of 3D Systems. 

Brent’s answer seems deceptively simple initially, referring to the oft-quoted reasons to turn to 3D printing, such as up-front costs and quicker tooling production. Lack of design sensibilities and familiarity with AM is definitely holding us back.

However, where Brent really makes a point that is very elegant is when he refers to “part consolidated complex geometries in one AM build.” This is another wonderfully precise concept that is often overlooked. People think of builds, parts, or assemblies as being expensive, but if you optimize components for builds and embrace complexity, then the entire product could be made in novel way in which 3D printing is immediately more cost-effective. Often, we’re trying to use an expensive machine to print a crutch when we could 3D print the entire wheelchair.

Stratasys’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Growth, Pat Carey, thinks that the lack of additive skillsets is a big issue.

“The opportunities for a career in additive manufacturing far outpace the rate at which people are trained for the positions. We have partnered with trade schools, universities, professional and educational organizations, as well as secondary education schools to encourage the development and delivery of education and training of additive manufacturing,” Carey said. “Our customers are feeling the need for more training as well, for example a large automaker is looking to open a large plant and they asked that we partner with them to put on a recruiting event for a plant that will not be ready for a number of years. By holding the event now, the automaker can encourage future employees to get the education necessary for an AM role in the plant. We’re also seeing the need for role-specific training, as additive applications get more specialized in dental, medical, engineering, design and tooling.”

This sentiment is often echoed by many players in our industry and I really like the idea of planning ahead and trying to inspire people to be ready when opportunities arise. One incredibly important point that Pat also makes is that companies often have no idea of how to calculate how 3D printing could be effective for them.

Anatomic model 3D printed with Stratasys J750.

Medical 3D printing with Stratasys’ J750 Digital Anatomy printer. Image courtesy of Stratasys.

“Companies also need help defining the ROI/Business case of how AM will be beneficial to their manufacturing operations and how to execute it,” Carey said. “We know that the technology works, but customers need to be guided as to which technology, what materials and for what applications are best for them, what the additive parts cost is versus the traditional parts cost, how to develop an ROI across more of the manufacturing process, the value of parts consolidation and reduced labor costs.”

Without AM knowledge, companies often cost incorrectly. My favorite example of this is the “tears in the boardroom scenario,” in which an AM project falls apart at a late stage due to humdrum issues such as not accounting for sufficient spacing between parts in the build chamber or not knowing that a machine has eight hours of turnaround time in between builds. It seems silly that smart individuals could sometimes not know such essential things, but they’re only obviously essential if you know them. It’s an important point to make because, by arming companies with correct information, we could really help accelerate their adoption of 3D printing.

The Origin One Dental machine in a dental lab. Image courtesy of Stratasys.

Another idea that Pat brought up is “getting the bugs out for connectivity at scale”:

“Manufacturers are continuing to embrace Industry 4.0 and the IIoT with connected 3D printers being just one piece of that puzzle. Businesses must continue to partner with their IT teams to demonstrate the uses of a 3D printer, or a fleet of printers, for manufacturing as opposed to just an engineering tool.”

This is something that I don’t think many are really sufficiently taking into account. We know now that 3D printing won’t replace everything, but at the same time we still act as if 3D printing is an island. We have far too few methods through which we can integrate with ERP, other tools, other applications and the enterprise as a whole. We have an industry of “enterprise 3D printing” without much of a way to embed those 3D printers in the enterprise. If we want to truly manufacture, we must play nice with all of the manufacturing infrastructure that exists in a firm.

We’ll check in with our experts in a subsequent post to see what more food for thought they’ve come up with for us.

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