Insights from industry

3D Printing Technology - How It Is Overcoming Its Challenges

Anthony Vicari, Research Associate for Lux Research talks to AZoM about 3D printing technology and the challenges involved.

Can you provide me with a brief overview of 3D printing?

3D printing is the additive fabrication of objects by depositing and patterning successive layers of material. The field began in the 1980’s with the invention of stereolithography, which works by patterning layers of a liquid photopolymer resin using an ultraviolet laser.

This approach quickly sparked the invention and commercialization of a plethora of other 3D printing technologies, which vary in the material feedstocks and patterning methods they use. All such technology enables the production of physical objects of virtually any shape, directly from digital models, in a span of hours.

What are the main applications for 3D printing?

Today, rapid prototyping – making single, unique parts for testing of novel designs – remains the primary industrial application for the technology. Using traditional methods like producing a machined mould or other tooling for a single prototype can require tens of thousands of dollars and weeks to months of time, but 3D printing enables production of the same part, often overnight, for only the cost of materials. This accelerated production cycle means engineers can test more ideas, and pursue more design iterations to ultimately develop superior parts.

As 3D printers decline in cost and the available resolution and materials selection and properties improve, they will gradually move beyond R&D groups, and into low-volume manufacturing (tens to a few thousands of units), particularly in aerospace and medical applications. For example, jet engines contain high-performance titanium, nickel alloy, and cobalt-chrome parts that are particularly difficult and expensive to machine. Currently, the complex shapes needed can only be made by casting, machining, and then assembling multiple pieces.

In contrast, 3D printing technologies can produce the final part structure in a single step, saving assembly and materials costs. The primary medical applications for 3D printing are surgical tools, implants like hip and knee replacements, and prosthetics.

Using 3D laser scanning, it is possible to automatically create a 3D model of an object, such as a patient’s injured limb or an underperforming organ. A 3D printer can then manufacture an implant designed to match the ideal shape for that patient’s body.

Why will consumer applications for 3D printing have a limited upside compared to the industrial uses for this technology?

The emergence of consumer-facing 3D printers since 2006 (when Stratasys’s initial patents on Fused Deposition Modelling began to expire) led to a resurgence of excitement and hype surrounding the technology.

In addition to start-ups such as Makerbot and Printrbot that have focused on this application from their founding, industry leader 3D Systems has gradually shifted its target market towards consumers and away from industrial printers. Popular interest raises awareness beyond the R&D labs of large corporations.

In addition, on-demand 3D printing enables anyone to create objects of his or her own design – whether for art, to sell, or as custom modifications or replacement parts for manufactured goods. What’s more, there are now tens of thousands of hobbyists tinkering with 3D printing technology, developing unique modifications to the printers themselves.

However, today’s consumer-level 3D printers still cost several thousand dollars assembled, and essentially make simple plastic parts. In addition, using a 3D printer to design unique objects requires familiarity with CAD software, a moderate level of mechanical skill, and a high level of patience for process tinkering.

At-home fabrication will not become widespread until printers become more reliable and the tools for using them become more intuitive. In the meantime, service bureaus like Shapeways offer an easier entry point for users, similar to the way that neighbourhood print shops like Kinko’s preceded home 2D graphics printers.

In contrast, industrial-grade 3D printers offer much more sophisticated capabilities. These include the ability to print high-performance metals and high-end polymers, parts up to several meters across, and even features as small as 30 nm. What’s more, because industrial printers are highly utilized and can offer secondary cost savings in labor and time, their higher price tag – from $10,000 to over $1 million – is not likely to be a major bottleneck in high-value industries.

While it is likely that over time consumer-level printers will improve to narrow the performance gap, at least in printing polymers, the market for industrial printers will remain larger in absolute terms through 2025.

What does 3D printing offer for its end-users?

Technology developers and industrial users alike are increasingly turning to novel high-performance materials to meet their goals, but struggle with cost. By only adding material where it is needed, 3D printing provides for higher materials utilization than “subtractive” processes like machining, and enables the production of complex shapes that can offer the same structural benefits with less material.

Beyond individual target applications, 3D printing has the potential to turn manufacturing supply chains on their head, evolving the way industries think about and implement the design, production, transportation, and delivery of goods.

In addition, as more developers follow the path of Object and Makerbot to create printers that can process multiple materials simultaneously, and as materials developers expand the range of available structural materials and complement them with electronic counterparts, OEMs will eventually be able to produce multifunctional objects in a single operation.

Such products may include radio frequency identification (RFID), digital processing and memory, lights, or sensors, all produced without the need for semiconductor fabrication equipment or post-assembly.

Potential applications range from self-testing and self-diagnosing structural parts in transportation and construction to smart prosthetics.

Where are the major development needs with this technology?

The most advanced 3D printers today cost seven figures, too expensive to make additive manufacturing truly ubiquitous. In addition, 3D printing processes are slow – production can require hours per vertical inch of part, which may be sufficient for prototyping, but is impractical for larger-scale production. Moreover, the performance of printed materials – particularly polymers – cannot match the same material made with traditional processes. Materials selection is also limited to a tiny fraction of options available for traditional production methods.

Materials for 3D printing also cost 10 to 100 times more than their bulk resin or powder counterparts. In part, this is due to the tight purity, composition, and size uniformity requirements of printing processes. However, much of the high cost comes from the fact that most 3D printer manufacturers requires users to buy their own branded material feedstocks, sold at a high margin – similar to the ink cartridge revenue model used by inkjet printer manufacturers.

While this strategy has been effective thus far for capturing maximum revenues in the rapid prototyping market, as 3D printing expands and the needs of users diversify, it will be untenable for the current leaders to maintain across-the-board control.

Can you discuss how 3D printing has the potential to shape the manufacturing ecosystem and how this will impact the relevant markets working with this technology?

Though it is unlikely to replace traditional processes for high-volume production, 3D printing can reshape the supply chain and economics of manufacturing processes while expanding the range of manufactured materials and structures.

Since the technology can be used to produce parts on-demand, on-site, and only as needed, it has the potential to simplify the supply chain and enable reduction of expensive and energy squandering inefficiencies such as transportation fuel consumption, idle equipment, and bloated inventories. In addition, armed with a 3D printer and computer-aided design (CAD) software, an engineer can produce a prototype part of any shape in a matter of hours at a marginal cost from just the required input materials, which enables faster innovation cycles and allows researchers to test design iterations many times faster and cheaper than was previously possible.

Such improvements go beyond the walls of an individual entity, as 3D printing enables instantaneous sharing and delivery of code, material recipes, process variables, and fabricated parts across companies and continents. To realize that potential, developers will not only need to address technical and commercial challenges, but also create new business models, legal structures, design paradigms, and partnership networks.

Lux Research has recently built a market model for 3D printing parts. Can you discuss the main findings from this analysis?

In total, we forecast the aggregate 3D printed part market will grow to $8.4 billion in 2025, with automotive, aerospace, and medical contributing 84% of total sales. Prototyping – currently more than 95% of the market – is poised to continue to grow to $4.0 billion in 2025, but it will then account for just 48% of the total printed parts market, as less mature sectors pick up the pace.

The aggregate consumer market for printers, materials, and parts will grow to $894 million in 2025 led by jewellery and architectural models, where there is ongoing demand for custom, one-off objects.

What will be the key driver for this technology and how will it evolve over the next decade?

The promise of a single device capable of fabricating nearly any shape has significant implications for some of the world’s biggest megatrends. The push towards open innovation is one example: beyond increased ease of sharing part designs and production processes, the proliferation of open-source searchable repositories for design files – albeit certain to be a prickly ethical and IP issue moving forward – has the potential to open up a whole new era of peer-to-peer innovative collaboration.

By reducing material waste, inventories, and the need to transport goods, 3D printing can also enable more sustainable manufacturing. Increased materials utilization further allows manufacturers to more readily adopt emerging high performance, high cost structural materials.

Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges, March, 2013.

Figure 1. “Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges, March, 2013. Image courtesy of Lux Research.    

Where can we find further information on Lux Research?

Lux Research provides strategic advice and ongoing intelligence for emerging technologies. Leaders in business, finance and government rely on us to help them make informed strategic decisions. Through our unique research approach focused on primary research and our extensive global network, we deliver insight, connections and a competitive advantage to our clients. Visit our website or Youtube for more information. You can also follow Lux on Twitter and Linked In and visit our blog, Lux Populi.

About Anthony Vicari

Anthony VicariAnthony Vicari is a Research Associate based in Lux Research’s Boston office. He is a member of both the Advanced Materials and Printed, Flexible, and Organic Electronics teams. On the Advanced Materials team he covers technological and market developments in composites, coatings, and advanced metals, as well as emerging technologies including metamaterials, smart materials, additive manufacturing, and graphene.

On the Printed, Flexible, and Organic Electronics team he covers technologies such as displays, smart packaging, functional inks, thin film batteries, organic photovoltaics, deposition equipment, and sensors.

Recently, Anthony attended the Carbon Fibre Future Directions 2013 conference in Geelong, Australia and the Composites Australia and CRC-ACS Conference 2013 in Melbourne where he spoke about how innovation in carbon fiber production and composite moulding will affect the growth of carbon-fiber reinforced plastics markets.

Earlier in 2013, he attended the IMI 3D Printing Opportunities and Challenges Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona, where he spoke about the evolving technology landscape and emerging market opportunities in 3D printing. At the Flextech 2013 conference, he presented on a panel about smart packaging technology and also delivered a talk entitled, “Printing for Profits: Making Money from Investments in Printed, Flexible, and Organic Electronics,” which he reprised for a recent webinar.

Prior to joining Lux Research, Anthony was a Research and Development Scientist at InnovX Systems, developing improved elemental analysis capabilities for handheld x-ray fluorescence spectrometers. He holds an M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and a B.A. (magna cum laude) in Physics and Chemistry from Harvard University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.


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