Following decades of acclaim as a prototyping method for designers and engineers, additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3D printing, is rapidly growing as a means of manufacturing end-use parts at scale. That’s critical right now for four reasons. First, it provides an economical way to help companies adapt to global supply chain challenges. Second, it makes manufacturing more sustainable. Third, it enables customized and personalized manufacturing, including medical and dental applications. And finally, additive manufacturing does all of this while bringing innovative products to market at an accelerated pace.
As the CEO of an additive technology company, I want to further discuss these trends and some of today’s applications of 3D printing.
SUPPLY CHAIN DIGITIZATION
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities of complex global supply chains, whereby even one missing part can bring an entire operation to a standstill. For example, according to the Association for Supply Chain Management, 66% of supply chain professionals experienced regular, systematic disruptions in their supply chain in 2020.
Adopting 3D printing can effectively digitize manufacturing operations by localizing production and replacing physically stored inventory with software files. Designs can be iterated upon on-demand. This can give a business more control and agility—and create less waste and risk—across the lifecycle of a product. Critical manufacturing parts can be printed on-site, and secure digital files can be sent where needed. Warehouse footprints and logistics demands, therefore, are significantly reduced.
We are also beginning to recognize the potential of additive manufacturing to achieve environmental goals, which many businesses consider a pressing concern. According to a Forrester report, “Brands and Politics Collide,” climate change is one of the top three issues that consumers feel brands should take a stand on. Companies worldwide are likely to continue to find ways to optimize their manufacturing processes by reducing energy consumption and waste and increasing their focus on sustainability going forward. Stricter European regulations and U.S. legislation are further driving companies to focus on more eco-friendly production methods.
I’m finding there is a growing understanding of the potential of additive manufacturing to achieve environmental goals by reducing energy consumption and waste. For example, when compared with computerized numerical control (CNC) machining, in which materials are cut away and disposed of, additive manufacturing can lower material costs and waste by nearly 90% while also reducing energy consumption by 25%-50%. Additionally, because parts can be produced closer to where they are needed, transportation requirements are also reduced, saving fuel and reducing carbon footprints.
Moreover, in transportation industries, like aerospace and electric vehicles, I’m seeing a growing interest in lightweight, additively designed polymer parts to improve fuel economy without compromising on durability and reliability. To wit, every pound shed from a plane saves 14,000 gallons of fuel a year.
Healthcare, in particular, is leading the adoption of 3D printing with new and exciting medical and dental applications that are personalized for each patient. New polymer technologies in 3D printing open up novel applications that have the potential to drastically improve patient care.
For instance, the ability to use additive manufacturing to quickly develop dental necessities like dentures, crowns, bridges, and implants has the potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world—and this is only the beginning. The use of 3D printing for presurgical planning is also gaining momentum. Using a visually and/or biomechanically realistic replica of an actual patient’s anatomy enables surgeons to attempt procedures they otherwise wouldn’t. The ability to plan a complex surgery and train prior to the procedure itself by using personalized, 3D-printed anatomical models has the potential to reduce operating room time and recovery time and increase success rates.
Across industries, the pace of innovation is accelerating as companies look for ways to gain a competitive edge. Meanwhile, supply and labor shortages are encouraging the use of digital technology in the design and development process to shorten the time it takes to bring new products to market.
In the automotive industry, complete model makeovers used to be a once-a-decade occurrence, with a refresh every several years. Now, as automakers pivot rapidly to electric vehicles, that pace of innovation has accelerated and completely new vehicles are going from design to production in much shorter timelines. To keep up with the pace, today’s 3D-printing systems are able to produce parts that look and feel almost exactly like the real thing, right down to Pantone-validated colors, glass appearance, and textures like leather and wood.
3D printing is also being used to produce initial production parts before traditional manufacturing methods can be employed. We saw this in the early days of the pandemic when countless companies around the world used 3D printing to produce hundreds of thousands of face shields, buying critical time for traditional production lines to ramp up.
I believe global manufacturing is at an inflection point. Under increasing pressure to solve supply chain challenges and energy efficiency needs, 3D printing is increasingly being explored to meet businesses’ goals. Over the next year and into the coming decade, I believe we will see monumental growth in the use of 3D printing to ameliorate supply chains, bring innovations to market faster, and reduce environmental impacts. We haven’t even scratched the surface in the advancement of the additive manufacturing industry, as its collaboration with automation will likely serve as a transformative technology in the factory of the future.
Chief Executive Officer, Stratasys