3D Printing Archipelago: Variable Parts and China

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We’re moving from a more or less unified 3D printing market to one of interconnecting vessels. Yes, we will meet at trade shows, but many more additive manufacturing (AM) products will be extremely industry specific, local or optimized for one user or vertical. We have previously seen how the market can be divided into four distinct phases, so far. We can also see that it is being split due to the commoditization of powder bed fusion (PBF), as well as the division of the market into high autonomy and high service customers. We will now look at some more ways the market will be broken apart.

Split 3: High vs Low Part Variability:

On the one hand, we’re starting to observe companies that still want high part variability: the use a lot of different materials and the ability to quickly print a variety of different geometries well and without too much work. This is a strength of polymer PBF, and also typically desired by service companies. These firms would love for new sintering machines to be able to switch powder easily through an “auto vac” that would make the process seamless. They’re the ones clamoring for robotic systems that can pick up any shape.

The manufacturing process with new, 3D printed metal grippers. The manufacturing process with new, 3D printed metal grippers. Image courtesy of nTopology.

Away from this market, we can see a different path being explored by new manufacturing companies and industrial firms. They’re often only interested in printing a single material, ever. A lamp company may never ever want to print anything other than polycarbonate and would love for that to only ever be the same grade from the same supplier. An aerospace company may only want Inconel 718, forever. They’re never going to want an “auto vac” for material changeover. What’s more, their part geometries are going to be more uniform.

Now, we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Bego and other firms printed tens of millions of bridges and crowns all in one of two materials and all in pretty much the same shapes. The same goes for the hearing aid and aligners people. But, they did so by either making do with the available technology or completely custom building their own tool chain and keeping it to themselves. Now, the market is bigger and there are more suppliers. Now, we can think differently.

Come to think of it, all the nesting software assumes that the user has a wide variety of parts. What if you only had to make four different components, but a large number of them. What if it was perfectly okay for you to get ten people to spend four months coming up with the best nesting for just a few parts because the volume will warrant any marginal increase in efficiency? What if you were using material extrusion and wanted to print 100,000 ten-centimeter pipes out of PVDF? Then, it would make sense to optimize your software, Gcode, machine and even compound your own material just for this one shape. You could spend weeks optimizing your tool path for certain shapes or transitions, as long as you had enough of them. This is a very different way of looking at manufacturing. It also required not only new thinking but new tools that we don’t have now.

Split 4: China vs the Rest of the World

China makes no secret of its perfectly logical wish to dominate nascent and world-defining technologies, from AI to AM. The country is stimulating growth in 3D printing at all levels via financing and government orders. The Chinese system leads to many parts of the government and commercial firms alike working towards common goals.

At the moment, we can see the capabilities of Chinese vendors advance considerably. I really think that a new Orientalist and, frankly, a rather parochial, outdated, and even racist view of China is keeping some members of the AM industry from realizing the country’s great potential in disrupting this market and others.

At the same time, geopolitical rivalries between the U.S. and China, as well as between China and regional powers, will play a role going forward. More and more firms are skeptical of the country’s intentions. Many defense, aerospace, and high-tech firms are weary of Chinese machines “phoning home”. They are worried about Chinese competition, industrial espionage, and IP protection. In turn, they are tending towards more nationalism and regionalism.

The U.S. and other nations are stimulating local production, technologies, vendors and manufacturing. Meanwhile, in China itself, European and American machines are being replaced by domestic counterparts. It seems that these geopolitical rivalries will lead to a complete split between China and the rest of the world in AM. In my opinion, China will be a predominantly Chinese market that also sells outside the country. Meanwhile, western firms will have limited market penetration in the country. Whole swathes of industry will not have Chinese machines, while some sectors will be dominated by them.

Conclusion

So far, we can see that regional differences and also your product mix will also split the market, making it so that vendors will not now be able to sell too all companies in the world. They’ll have to choose between China and the rest. At the same time, other software and post-processing vendors will have to choose between catering to high part variability or companies printing the same parts.

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