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Niche no longer: How additive manufacturing is reaching scale

The 3D printing industry has long promised a time when its products could meet the demands of manufacturing at scale. That time has arrived.

Niche no longer: How additive manufacturing is reaching scale
[ProstoSvet/AdobeStock]

In May, the White House unveiled its AM Forward Initiative, a broad plan to accelerate the use of additive manufacturing (AM) in the United States.

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The initiative comes at an inflection point for the additive manufacturing industry. AM—also known as 3D printing—is not new, but historically, its primary use case was rapid prototyping. End users would print prototypes, then use traditional manufacturing methods to enter mass production. This continues to be a very valuable use for 3D printing.

But through the pandemic, AM has emerged as a valuable tool for companies suffering from supply chain bottlenecks that continue to reverberate across the global economy. Some manufacturers found that they could make specialized, high-value parts that already took months to arrive from overseas factories. But onshoring wasn’t limited to unique and complicated parts. For example, hospital systems and health care providers used 3D printers to make face masks and other protective equipment, proving AM’s value for just-in-time manufacturing.

In recent years, the additive manufacturing industry has made significant leaps to use 3D printing at scale. SmarTech Analysis is projecting the global additive manufacturing market to grow to $50.8B by 2030. Here is what will drive that growth:

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IoT AND AUTOMATION TO SCALE AM IMPLEMENTATIONS

AM companies offer their solutions as platforms that can cover the broadest possible range of industries and applications. Improved connectivity on the factory floor and workflow automation will make it easier for manufacturers to run large fleets of 3D printers with world-class efficiency. This includes validating designs, quality assurance, work order management, traceability, and inventory.

MATERIALS INNOVATION

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Manufacturers must match the most suitable material for each application. Historically, adding a new material for 3D printing has been a slow process and due to the small size of the prototyping market, large polymer materials manufacturers were skeptical of investing in AM materials. That has now changed as we continue to see industry giants fully onboard with smart 3D printers supporting an explosion of new tailored photopolymers and thermopolymers.

Some polymers may need to be more rigid, reinforced with carbon fiber, while others must be able to withstand extreme environments such as those found on spacecraft. Flexible and biocompatible materials are needed for medical and dental applications. AM companies are increasingly offering dozens—even hundreds—of materials and are supporting their customers in materials research to find the best material for their needs.

HIGH-QUALITY PRODUCTION

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Manufacturing is a game with tight tolerances and consistency. Thanks to print processes, careful thermal controls, sensors to manage processes, and better production-grade materials, today’s industrial 3D printers are incredibly accurate and consistent enough to be used in the automotive, aerospace, and healthcare industries.

BROAD APPLICABILITY

In the past, the 3D printing industry was largely driven by start-ups, with individual makers offering just one or two solutions. Startup innovation continues—which is essential for the future of the industry—however, leaders in additive manufacturing are now able to provide a full range of tailored solutions so that companies can find the optimal solution for their applications.

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COMMUNITY OF EXPERTISE 

Manufacturers are using 3D printers in ways that we—the makers of the machines themselves—could never have imagined. This effort is spurring an ecosystem of experimentation and expertise. Users are sharing knowledge and training the next generation of manufacturers. That, in turn, accelerates the adoption of additive manufacturing across the supply chain.

The 3D printing industry has long promised a time when its products could meet the demands of manufacturing at scale. That time has arrived. Manufacturers are moving their 3D printing machines from the engineering lab to the shop floor, unlocking a range of sorely needed benefits: faster, more flexible supply chains, improved sustainability, lower inventory needs, shorter design cycles, and faster time to market.

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Major auto manufacturers have increasingly adopted the technology, and through the White House’s AM Forward Initiative, some of the largest manufacturers in the U.S. have committed to demonstrating demand for 3D-printed parts in their supply chains. As part of that commitment, they’ll help smaller and medium-sized manufacturers adopt the technology.

Additive manufacturing is no longer a niche industry; it has nowhere to go but up.


Chief Executive Officer, Stratasys

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