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The Future of 3D Printing: Five Trends

The future of 3D printing is bright and is an increasingly important pillar in the manufacturing renaissance. With the increased usage of the technology, conversations about additive manufacturing are a lot more tangible than they were just two years ago. Before, we were debating whether there is a financial or technological case to convert from traditional, high volume processes to an additive printer. Now, there are growing numbers of use-cases and demonstrable business benefits proving that additive can be used as a mainstream manufacturing technology. What can be done with 3D printing isn’t theoretical anymore; it’s fact.

Several industries—including healthcare, automotive and aerospace and defense—have been experiencing impactful production and business transformations within key areas of their business given the maturation of additive technologies and material supply-chains. For instance, interior aircraft parts like ducting, vents and airflow systems created with additive manufacturing permit designers to trim weight, reduce the number of components in assemblies, and conform to tight cabin interiors. In addition, additive provides design freedom to experiment with more effective and efficient part shapes, with fewer potential points of failure. These give manufacturers more flexibility in creating their products all while keeping pace with contracting production cycles.

In a recent survey conducted by Jabil, we discovered that in just over a year, the number of companies utilizing 3D printing as well as the variety of applications rocketed dramatically; the percentage of companies using additive to manufacture production parts rose from 27 percent to 52, bridge production increased from 23 percent to 39, and repair went from 14 percent to 38. Although the 3D printing industry is currently worth around $9.3 billion, a report by Smithers Pira predicts that the additive manufacturing industry will be worth $55.8 billion by 2027. Download the full Jabil survey report.

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But as additive grows, how will it shape other industries and aspects of manufacturing? What does the future of 3D printing hold?

Scalability from Prototyping to Production

3D printing use for bridge production has grown 70 percent in just two years. In that time, automotive, transportation and heavy equipment industries have been the most frequent users of the technology for this purpose. 

Additive manufacturing allows for easy scalability from prototype to full-scale manufacturing. After all, prototyping without the vision and expertise to go into full-scale production misses a key tenant of what additive stands to deliver which is more efficient life-cycle management.

When volumes are still relatively low, if a brand is looking to print 100 parts for engineering testing, for instance, it’s easy to do so with additive manufacturing. Even quadrupling that number can be done with no added retooling costs using 3D printing. Additive is the perfect fit for low to mid-volume production. With the right level of planning, engineering, and material development, a part developed using additive can seamlessly transition into rate production equipment such as injection molding.

Producing a part on-demand with 3D printing enables manufacturers to print parts as needed instead of pulling the part from a supply warehouse. On demand production will help companies realize huge reductions in inventory and storage costs. In the automotive industry, for example, spare parts inventory could be reduced by 90 percent with 3D printing, according to a report from MIT.

Today, we’re moving from a capability conversation to capacity conversation. But in the future, 3D printing will be able to support all facets of new product introduction (NPI) where scaling volume to achieve price points will become decreasingly important. 

Normalizing Digitization and Reorganizing the Supply Chain

Additive manufacturing is leading the way in the digital transformation of Industry 4.0. It’s one of the purest digital technologies because it doesn’t require tooling and fixturing, thereby eliminating or reducing switching costs in moving a file to different locations and printers. That’s a radical departure from labor-intensive methods employed by the manufacturing industry over the last 200 years.

In fact, the most disruptive aspect of additive has little to do with the actual printers—it’s the conversion of a digital form into a physical good, meaning a file that has a representation of the final product you want. 3D printing is the first step on the journey to digital transformation

Rather than stocking a warehouse full of parts that might become obsolete and mass quantities of spare parts that may or may not be in demand, additive manufacturing condenses the piles of boxes eating up physical space into digital files that can be stored in the Cloud and easily accessed if they are ever needed.

In addition to digital inventory, distributed manufacturing is also changing how companies are incorporating 3D printing into their digital strategy. Instead of considering a centralized solution, distributed manufacturing enables companies to decentralize production so they can manufacture the final product closer to the customer. 

With 3D printing, manufacturers can better connect the physical supply chain with a digital thread and manage products more efficiently from concept to end-of-life. Manufacturing can be distributed to any location that has digital manufacturing systems in place simply by sending a file. This decentralization enables a more collaborative, transparent and efficient supply chain. If a natural disaster hits, additive manufacturing will be able to right itself and move forward much more quickly than traditional manufacturing. 

In the future, a hybrid version of manufacturing will include large factories, as well as larger numbers of smaller sites with 3D print farms, or even printers being deployed in alternative locations, like service and support centers, distribution centers, or even in people’s homes. 3D printing will eventually become simple enough that most households will be able to pull files and print a product with just a few flicks of their wrists, like 2D printing at Kinko’s a mere ten years ago. We’re already on this course, and we’re just beginning to distribute closer to consumption and becoming more agile.

Not too long ago, the battery case on one of my son’s toys broke and I 3D printed a new one. It’s starting to reach the point where you wonder, “What can’t we print?” And when we start to dissect everything down to the molecular level, it’s just a matter of time before individual consumers can print food or glasses frames or…well, anything. In the future, 3D printing will empower more consumers. 

Offering Greater Flexibility and More Customized Designs

A prevailing consumer trend that we have noticed across many industries is the desire for personalization. Rather than purchasing a mass-produced item, customers are more frequently wanting a product that is created for them specifically, gratifying their personal tastes and preferences.

This is enabled by additive manufacturing’s ability to offer low-volume production. 3D printing gives manufacturers more flexibility in responsive design. Instead of having to hoist large quantities of identical objects onto the public, they can afford to produce smaller batches, allowing designers and engineers to adjust product designs and innovate in a cost-effective manner as inspiration strikes or customer feedback trickles in. 

The Future of 3D Printing is in Materials

While substantial investments in the additive manufacturing ecosystem are fueling growth, I don’t think you can overstate the significance of the materials. Outside of the high cost of the equipment, the next big barrier is materials and the closed ecosystem which has stymied the industry’s growth. Numerous types of 3D printing materials are on the market today, but very few are advanced enough to meet the quality or regulatory requirements of every industry. 

With current challenges surrounding volumes in most industries, suppliers and manufacturers aren’t incentivized to create the materials necessary for new applications. However, I believe that the future of 3D printing is in materials—specifically engineered and application specific materials. The different needs of diverse industries all require custom solutions to their problems. Integrating new engineered materials will transform a new generation of applications, including heavily regulated industries.   

Creating a More Sustainable Future with 3D Printing

Finally, two of the key tenets to additive manufacturing are sustainability and conservation. One of the intrinsic benefits is that scrap material is reduced, if not eliminated. As Simon Ford and Mélanie Despeisse point out in their essay, “Additive Manufacturing and Sustainability: An Exploratory Study of the Advantages and Challenges,” additive manufacturing mimics biological processes by creating objects layer by layer, rather than produce a hulking item that must be whittled and chunks carved out to achieve the desired shape. “It is inherently less wasteful than traditional subtractive methods of production and holds the potential to decouple social and economic value creation from the environmental impact of business activities,” they write. 

Aside from reducing waste, 3D printing also conserves energy. The Metal Powder Industries Federation did a study that listed 17 steps required to produce a truck gear using subtractive manufacturing versus the six steps it takes to accomplish the same task with additive manufacturing. With 3D printing, the same product took less than half the energy. Additionally, by bringing products closer to the customer, 3D printing reduces the need for transporting products and materials, thereby positively affecting the quantity of carbon poured into the atmosphere. Therefore, the future of 3D printing will lead to a more sustainable future overall.

This is a pivotal time for the manufacturing industry. We’re standing at an epicenter where we don’t have a fully mature technology, both in the physical representation and the printers and how we want to manage everything on the digital side. But additive manufacturing is demonstrating its transformative nature and has already begun to reshape businesses. 

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According to our survey, over the next two to five years, 86 percent of companies expect their use of 3D printing to at least double, and just less than 40 percent expect their usage to increase five times or more. As we adopt additive manufacturing, companies will be able to do smaller batch sizes, realize faster NPI and development and, ultimately, where the cost curves intersect, use it as a full serial production tool. In doing that, we’re laying the foundation, and the distributive manufacturing model will be here to stay. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the future of 3D printing is bright. 

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