COVID-19 may boost 3D printing technology
The 3D printing market is increasingly shifting from prototyping to end-use manufacturing.
The COVID-19 lock down and the disruption to existing supply chains may accelerate that trend. In a Sculptor's State of 3D Printing 2020 report 50%of survey respondents stated they are now using 3D printing for end-use parts. This was also the first time that the percentage of respondents who cited rapid prototyping fell since the previous year.
COVID-19 has forced supply chain managers to examine alternative sourcing that is localized. Prior to COVID-19, there was not the impetus, as the existing supply chains appeared to be functioning well. 3D printing is one of the leading solutions for providing more localized production.
The benefits of localized production extend beyond the current situation. They would help to reduce carbon emissions and minimize transportation costs. When disruptions occur, be they a pandemic or war, companies would be able to quickly shift production where it is required. The shortage of ventilators and face masks during the current pandemic, demonstrate the utility of this approach.
A single breakdown in the supply chain can be extremely disruptive during a crisis. Alternative sourcing may not be available leading to a complete stop in the supply of a particular product.
An example of this is the demand for nasal swabs. These swabs are used for testing coronavirus. They cannot be easily replaced with standard swabs as they need to be long and without a wooden shaft. Hospitals have been unable to source enough of these swabs and one of the primary reasons is the disrupted supply chain.
In a recent interview on CNN, Ramon Pastor, president of 3D printing at HP, stated that his division would be able to print one million swabs a week for the US market. This is just one demonstration of how 3D printing can quickly fill local demand needs while eliminating the need to rely on complex global chains.
Wider range of 3D printing materials
The 3D printing material market is increasing annually at a rate of 25%. By 2024 it is predicted that the market will reach an estimated $US2.5 billion. In 2020 we can expect to see a wider range of materials developed for 3D printing.
Standard materials for 3D printing such as thermoplastics and powders continue to fall in price. However, there is currently a range of materials readily available for 3D printing, that does not match that of injection molding. Developing new materials will open up a new range of applications for 3D printing technology and make it more competitive against traditional manufacturing methods.
Demand for new 3D printing materials is primarily being driven by the healthcare, automotive and aerospace & defense (A&D)industries. It is predicted that much of the growth in 3D printing materials will occur in the North American market due to the strong presence of both A& D and automotive companies. This will be further supported by the healthcare industry, which is likely to see high demand in the North American market. This is driven by the need for 3D printed dental and medical implants.
It is expected that metal will be the biggest of the 3D printing material markets in the first half of the 2020's. Again, this is due to the demand for this material by the automotive and A & D industries. Plastic is predicted to hold the second largest part of the 3D printing materials market over the same period.
Focus on high-performance thermoplastics
Currently the polymer market is dominated by PLA and ABS. These plastics can be used for a wide variety of products, readily available and relatively inexpensive.
These simple plastics do not perform as well in high temperature and harsher environments. As a consequence, there has been significant investment in developing high performance plastics. These are in particular demand by the Aerospace and Defense (A & D) industry which is one of the fast-growing markets for 3D printing.
These high-performance products include carbon reinforced composites like PEKK, ULTEM and PEEK. These materials are being used by manufacturers to create both prototypes and parts. 3D printer companies are working closely with manufacturers of these new high-performance plastics, to ensure that their printers work with them.
3D printing using graphene
Graphene is called a super material. It is thinner than paper, but stronger than steel. Its high thermal and electric conductivity properties mean it is very suited for use in semi-conductors, solar panels and flexible electronics. Some believe that the wider adoption of graphene could have a dramatic effect upon what is possible with engineering and society more broadly. In much the same way that the rise of the American steel industry helped to spread the railroads across the country, so could graphene have an outsize effect. It is currently highly sought after from industries ranging from aerospace to battery manufacturing.
3D printing is the next frontier for this super material. In 2019 the 3D printing filament company Terrafilm formed a partnership with XGSciences. Together they are developing graphene enhanced materials that can be used in 3D printing. This is not the only work being done to make graphene available for 3D printings. Researchers at Virginia Tech have been studying for several years how they can print objects using graphene. The work done by the sescientists has led to breakthroughs in the complexity of objects that can be printed. In the past graphene enhanced materials were only capable of producing very basic structures. But the work done now means it is possible to create structures down to 10 microns in size.
The progress made in 3D printing with graphene so far has been impressive, but there is still significant work to be done. This is a difficult material to print with and it is expensive to source. 2020 could be the year when the promise of 3D printing with graphene starts to become reality.
Innovation in 3D printing software
Software has become the choke point in the 3D printing industry. Overall, the 3D printing industry has been primarily focused on advancing materials and hardware. Software on the other hand has not had the same level of attention. 2020 shows promising signs to be the year when the same type of innovation is applied to software.
An increasing number of companies are developing the next generation for 3D printing. These tools could prove to be a real accelerant to the development and adoption of 3D printing technology.
One of the main challenges in 3D printing software is interoperability. For each state of the design process an engineer may need to use different software programs. These will require multiple formats further complicating the process.
This range of different tools needed in order to get a model actually ready for 3D printing, adds complexity to additive manufacturing workflows. Even worse, shifting data between different software programs can lead to mistakes. This is both expensive and can cause production delays.
Interoperability would minimize the number of tools that are needed to get a model ready for printing. One way that this is being achieved is by taking functionality that would normally only be available in additive manufacturing specific software, and moving it into standard CAD software. This is occurring through acquisition such as the purchase of the 3D software design company Netfabb, by CAD giant Autodesk. Companies are also developing 3D printing functionality internally for their CAD software. Dassault Systems and Altair both have projects internally to provide 3D capabilities for their CAD solutions.
Gradual replacement of STL file formats
STL is the standard when it comes to 3D printing file formats. The file format was first developed in the 1980s to allow CAD software to send files that could be used to print 3D objects. Over the following decades there has been significant changes to 3D printing technology, but STL has stayed mostly the same.
The ubiquity of STL has certainly helped with the proliferation of 3D technology but it is not without its disadvantages. These have become particularly obvious when it comes to designing complex parts. Just some of these disadvantages include that STL files do include key information such as material, color or texture. In order to define very complex or big objects, it requires creating extremely large files. These files are so large that in some cases a 3D printer will be unable to work with them. Changing an STL file is also not easy. Even a small change can necessitate hours of additional work.
One potential alternative to STL, is 3MF. This is a universal and open-source file format that was first introduced in 2015 by the 3MF Consortium. 3MF allows for much more complex shapes and in lower file sizes. Data missing from STL, such as color and texture can also be included in 3MF. There have been continuing developments of 3MF over the past several years, so 2020 may be the year where we see the STL file format start to lose some of its dominance.
The metal binder jetting renaissance will be realized
3D printing is largely viewed as a technology suitable for low volume manufacturing. For large scale production companies still overwhelmingly favor traditional manufacturing methods. The renaissance in metal binder jetting could change that, allowing 3D printing to shift into higher production volumes.
Metal binder jetting allows for high speed and precise manufacturing. This technology underwent something of a renaissance in 2019. Itis in 2020 that the promise of this technology is likely to be realized.
Metal binder jetting was first developed at MIT in 1993. The researchers found a process to use inkjet printing to create 3D objects with the use of metal powders. The process involves using a liquid binder to join layer upon layer of powder particles. In 1996 Extrude Hone Corporation, obtained the exclusive license from MIT for the technology. Based on this license the company developed a range of commercial metal binder jetting 3D printers. In the 2010's the MIT patent for the technology expired, which has allowed new companies to enter the market. This has led to a revival in the technology, as these companies look to widen the spread of the technology and make it production ready for more industries.
Printing auto parts on demand
In a recent study from MIT it was found that spare parts inventory for the automotive industry could be reduced by as much as 90%by shifting to 3D printing. Rather than a manufacturer needing to take apart from their supply warehouse, they could instead print the required part.
Automotive companies currently need to keep spare parts for all of their car models for 7 to 10 years. The holding cost of retaining all of that inventory can be very expensive. If part goes out of stock, then it is difficult to fill the item for the customer.
3D printing would provide an alternative to holding such a large inventory of auto parts. Not only would this almost completely eliminate the holding costs, it would also reduce the transportation costs of getting the part to the customer. Finally, auto parts can almost be guaranteed to be available all of the time. Overall, this would produce higher customer satisfaction and lower cost for auto manufacturers.
3D printed prosthetics on the rise
The cost of supplying prosthetics could drop by as much as 62% by switching to a 3D printed model. In the United States prosthetic knee implants are currently manufactured in Asia. They then need to be shipped, warehoused and distributed before they are available for use by the hospital. By 3D printing these implants close to the customer, transportation costs alone would fall by 90%.
3D printed prosthetics have a number of other advantages over traditional manufacturing. 3D printing excels at customization, which is ideal for prosthetics where each item needs to meet the unique needs of the user. 3D printing prosthetics can be printed close to the patient, avoiding the need to travel to be fitted. This is particularly beneficial in developing countries where a visit to an urban center may be impractical or too expensive.
Until recently more 3D printed prosthetics have lacked electronic user interfaces, which are found in more advanced prosthetics. This meant that while it was possible to print 3D prosthetics from open-source databases, they weren't always the best option for patients. However recent research by a team at Virginia Tech has made significant advances in integrating electronic sensors into 3D prosthetics. If successfully developed for the consumer market, this could mean lower cost prosthetics with integrated electronic sensors.
Market for composites will increase sharply
In a 200 page report by SmartTech Publishing it was predicted that by 2028 the 3D printing market for composites would reach $10billion. The composites include powders and pellets which are further reinforced with carbon fibers and chopped glass. These materials are then used in additive manufacturing to produce a wide range of end-use parts for the marine, energy and aerospace industry.
Composites have long been part of many companies' research& development programs. What has changed is that companies are now generating significant revenue from the sale of materials and hardware. One very promising area of growth is powder bed fusion 3D printers. These are the main type of 3D printers used in composite additive manufacturing. The SmartTech report estimates that revenue from hardware will reach $4 billion.
While the pandemic may negatively affect end use customers for 3D printing, overall, the current situation should accelerate the adoption of 3D printing. The need for localized production could act as a significant boost to 3D printing, meaning that the industry may develop faster than previously predicted. This trend will only be heightened by the introduction of new 3D printing technologies and materials. Overall, 2020 could be a transformative year for 3D printing.