Future of AM: Will 3D Printing Reach Mass Adoption, or Stay Niche?

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If we look at the successes of 3D printing, then we have won mainly in a few isolated cases. In particular, this includes small, high-value, unique parts that are meant to fit the human body can be made cost effectively with additive manufacturing (AM). Whether we look at the 250,000 Invisalign thermoforming inserts printed each day, the millions of polymer and metal dental parts, or the hold we have on the in-ear hearing aid market, the applications we occupy are really very similar in terms of the role played by the 3D printed part and the characteristics it needs.
Small and must-fit is rather niche, however, and even within these criteria we haven’t really made a dent (yet) in adjacent markets, such as personalized hearing protection, headphones, and mouth guards. We’ve now become an overnight success in orthopedics—an overnight success that took nearly 30 years. So. it’s a fair question to ask: will 3D printing remain niche forever? Or does another future beckon?
3D Systems Chief Scientist, Brent Stucker, told 3DPrint.com the following:
“AM doesn’t require expensive custom tooling prior to manufacturing a needed part.  Since niche applications are low-volume applications, they are particularly well-suited for AM. The cost of the tools used in traditional manufacturing is only amortized over a relatively small production volume, and thus the cost per part is very high. In AM, the cost per part is moderate regardless of the production volume.”
Textbook answer from someone who, by the way, also has a great textbook on 3D printing. So, it seems that we’re kind of stuck? We’re great for a kind of uncanny valley of manufacturing. Or may we yet have a future where we’re used in conjunction with mass manufacturing—or even within mass manufacturing?
About that point, Brent said:
“Absolutely. AM is already used extensively in mass manufacturing. For instance, custom dental aligners are produced in volumes of tens of millions per year via AM. This, by any measure, is mass manufacturing. Over 100,000 jet engine fuel nozzles have been produced by AM, which is mass manufacturing for aerospace. As manufacturers explore other applications where the digital workflow and the complexity of parts made by AM create unique market advantages, I believe AM will continue to be adopted for more mass manufacturing applications.”

Better thermal management of wafer tables can simultaneously improve semiconductor equipment accuracy by 1–2 nm, as well as speed and throughput. (Image courtesy of 3D Systems.)

I like that bullish and positive approach from Dr. Stucker. However, the really important aspect is where he noted that “the digital workflow and the complexity of parts made by AM create unique market advantages.” This is something that I think so many people get wrong.

To shift to 3D printing, it’s almost as though something has to be unique and create a real advantage to be worth the bother. Often, we just see businesses lightweight a part that then costs six times more and takes a week to make. In such cases, people are looking at implementing 3D printing without there ever really being a chance that this part is significant or will alter their fortunes. I think of this in terms of stacking, whereby, if we look at a really successful case such as orthopedic implants, we can see as many as 18 distinct advantages that 3D printed metal orthopedics have over conventional ones.

Stratasys Senior Vice President for Strategic Growth Pat Carey thinks along similar lines,
“We believe that manufacturing at scale with AM is already beginning to happen. At Stratasys, with a single printer we can produce over 200,000 parts on the machine in a year. Our team at Origin, for example, produced more than 500,000 nasal swabs during the first peak of the pandemic in 2020. We are seeing more and more examples of customers manufacturing at scale with AM. Analysts are predicting that AM at scale will accelerate in the next five years and we are certainly counting on it,” Carey said.
With regards to seeing it as a technology that can be used in conjunction and alongside mass manufacturing, Carey stated:
“Yes, almost all manufacturers who have adopted AM are using it alongside their traditional manufacturing processes. We don’t see it as an ‘either-or’ but as an “and”. There are, of course, a few exceptions and we could see dental labs moving to 100% AM. Also, in healthcare applications, we could see a different percentage split between traditional and additive manufacturing, mostly due to the personalized nature of healthcare. The other exception here are AM service bureaus, but that said, some of them have a mix of traditional manufacturing and AM.”

Stratasys 3D printed 16 total components for Champion Motorsports’ recently modified Porsche race car. The largest component (pictured) was a 7 x 5-foot rear diffuser test prototype, for which Stratasys printed a sandwich core from ULTEM 1010 plastic (shown in gold) that was then wrapped in carbon fiber prepreg. Photo courtesy of Stratasys.

I think it’s important that he does look at the exceptionalism here and would totally agree that, for some dental parts at least, 3D printing could be the only technology in use. By looking at one single use case and market, we sometimes get a very different view about market adoption than we would by missing this granularity. It’s also an interesting observation to note that healthcare is a different bird. A lot of people look at these markets more or less the same but, indeed, in the types of requirements and players in this market do suggest that market penetration is going to be radically different compared to other verticals.

Final, 3D printed ECS duct adapter designed to cool aircraft while on the ground. 3D printed in Stratasys Nylon 12 on the Fortus 450mc

But will we stick to just a few verticals, such as healthcare, or maybe even just small parts of these verticals? Here, Pat is very optimistic:
“Additive manufacturing is everywhere – it is hard to name an industry where we won’t be used. For us, we believe that there are billion-dollar opportunities in applications such as fashion, dentistry, orthodontics, medical devices, aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, electronics – the list goes on. And in addition to the industries above, because of our mix of technologies and available materials, we also find ourselves with the ability to be used in applications like entertainment, sporting goods, and packaging – just to name a few. Because we have a variety of different AM technologies, we are able to support a wide variety of applications,” Pat said.
It’s significant to take a moment and think of Carey’s “additive manufacturing is everywhere” comment because it does tell us something interesting. We could be used in depth in few industries and not find a foothold in many more, but being everywhere albeit in small form would also mean a market 50 times larger than we now have. Brent echoed this sentiment, saying:
“AM will penetrate further into more and more industries as AM machines become faster, cheaper, more reliable, and work with more materials. I have yet to find an industry where AM does not have potential as a current or future manufacturing method.”

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