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Overcoming the Top 3D Printing Challenges

The outlook for 3D printing is exceedingly positive. We initially revealed many of these optimistic sentiments from over 300 product brands in 2017 when we conducted an original survey. Two years later, our results show that additive manufacturing use is growing across industries:

  • 86 percent expect their 3D printing use to more than double over the next few years (65 percent in 2017).
  • 59 percent believe additive manufacturing has already changed the way they think and operate (43 percent in 2017).
  • 79 percent believe they will more than double their 3D printing use for production parts over the next few years (56 percent in 2017).

There are 3D printing challenges, as you might expect (more on those shortly), but these sentiments are well-placed. Additive manufacturing has come a long way in just two years—discussions of potential benefits have translated into real business outcomes that pique interest from every industry. For example:

These proof points highlight the transformative impact of additive manufacturing. While many product brands have seen tremendous time- and cost-savings in everything from prototyping, design and production parts, others are waiting for the technology to be ready for use in their industry. 

Regardless, 97 percent of survey participants admit to facing 3D printing challenges. Those challenges have shifted over the last two years, showcasing the advancements in the technology to production readiness which unveil new opportunities to overcome. Download the full Jabil survey report.

Critical 3D Printing Challenges

In the Jabil survey, 2017 respondents indicated that their biggest additive manufacturing challenges were related to costs (of pre- and post-processing, system equipment and materials), whereas 2019 respondents find the material cost to be most challenging. Recent additive manufacturing challenges are centered around materials issues. Take a look:

3d printing challenges - survey results

Although these represent the top challenges faced across industries such as consumer electronics, healthcare, heavy equipment, automotive, transportation and industrial machines, there are also consistencies when we examine them individually.

Diving deeper into what prevents product brands from using 3D printing in production today, 56 percent say materials issues (cost or availability of materials needed) are number one. Forty-four percent highlight their workforce issues (such the lack of qualified personnel or subject matter experts), and 39 percent highlight process issues (such as design or post-processing issues). Other categorical 3D printing challenges include platform issues (availability or cost of 3D printers that can produce what they need) and ecosystem issues (connectivity to supply chain, ERP and MES systems). These categorical issues are listed consistently across each industry as well. 

Navigating the World of Additive Manufacturing Materials

Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said that their design and engineering teams frequently choose traditional manufacturing methods over 3D printing due to a lack of materials. It makes sense. The cost and availability of additive materials may be the main obstacles, but material performance is a significant barrier. 

Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said that their design and engineering teams frequently choose traditional manufacturing methods over 3D printing due to a lack of materials.

As I mentioned earlier, part quality—integrity, strength, aesthetics, etc.—is a challenge many manufacturers face. While some sectors are doing well and transforming their customer experiences (for example, the dental and hearing aid industries), others haven’t yet moved beyond prototyping to part production. This is because certain industries (such as healthcare and aerospace) require certified materials or specific qualifications for the materials to be used beyond prototyping. 

According to the Jabil survey, polymers are the most commonly used 3D printing materials today, but participants are most interested in using metals next. Currently, 3D printing is most suitable for complex, bespoke parts that are costly and difficult to produce via traditional methods. But as advancement are made in lowering the cost of materials and faster machine throughput, metals for additive manufacturing use will be much more accessible to product brands.

When considering which additive manufacturing materials to use, keep custom-engineered materials in mind. Through engineered materials, product brands can access custom powders and filaments, with manufacturing rigor applied to each specialized material. This way, your part performance and requirements match perfectly. Greater availability of unique materials, a shorter time-to-market and reduced costs on part development are just some of the benefits of using custom materials. 

Through engineered materials, product brands can access custom powders and filaments, with manufacturing rigor applied to each specialized material. 

Considering that additive manufacturing technology has come a long way in the last few years, I don't expect material challenges to last much longer. As new materials are introduced, our ability to produce parts that meet our expectations will be strengthened. Since the 3D printing technology can also enable us to consolidate the number of parts we use, the opportunities are just waiting to be seized.

Six out of 10 survey respondents said that when a greater variety of cost-effective, certified additive materials are available, they will increase the types of applications that utilize 3D printing. In addition, 59 percent say they will do more 3D printing of production parts. 

Budgetary Limitations in Additive Manufacturing

Manufacturers need reliable 3D printing systems that can offer the quality they expect and promise from their operations. But quality comes at a cost. Therefore, it is not surprising to see the expense of system equipment and materials to be reported as a barrier in 3D printing adoption. 

Before taking on additive manufacturing as a practice, you must first develop your strategy. Analyze your supply chains and parts you produce, develop a business case and make it all part of your strategy with a budget. Additive manufacturing is a long-term investment for your organization, if not a complete manufacturing transformation. Although the systems and materials may seem costly, they may offset or lead to significant cost-savings in productivity, efficiency as well as part properties. 

For those who don't want to take on 3D printing in their own supply chains, working with an external partner (like Jabil) is always another option.

Addressing the Lack of In-House 3D Printing Expertise

Considering how fast additive manufacturing is advancing, it can be very difficult to find the right talent to grow the technology in your organization, as indicated in the survey results. 

The reality is that you can draw on your team members. Whether it is injection molding or design, you can cross-train your existing talent to get them up to speed with 3D printing. Your design teams may require more support as they learn to design for additive manufacturing. Companies that focus on training their teams on using the technology see positive benefits such as a more excited team, increased creativity and pride of workmanship, according to the survey.

3d printing challenges - engineering team reactions

As is with any other case, investing in your experienced and incoming talent will be key to overcoming this challenge. In addition, your organization may want to consider partnership opportunities with universities that have already launched 3D printing labs to deliver training to engineering students.  

Whether you are new to additive manufacturing or mature in your use of it, the competition for skilled talent will not be an easy one.

Opportunities to Advance 3D Printing Technology to Scale Operations

One of the primary attributes you can use to differentiate your business on is speed. Speed to concept, speed to prototype and speed to production are what matter in this world of instant gratification. Additive manufacturing is set to meet these demands as the technology advances. 

Speed to concept, speed to prototype and speed to production are what matter in this world of instant gratification.

Ultimately, 3D printing reduces the barriers to get a product to market or do a test market, as it doesn't require the significant investments in tools, molding and equipment required with traditional manufacturing methods. Organizations from startups to multi-national companies can all benefit from additive manufacturing. 

Partnerships in the industry are already leading to big results and bringing additive manufacturing much closer to production for several industries. As the technologies become more open, innovation will thrive.

Product Brands are Optimistic About Challenges

The good news is that 98 percent of respondents were optimistic that we'll be able to overcome challenges surrounding additive manufacturing. In fact, 55 percent expect these challenges to be overcome as soon as the next three years.

We will need to focus our energy on the following to overcome these challenges:

  • Strategy development
  • Hiring and training
  • Monetary investments
  • New technology and innovation in additive manufacturing
  • Time to change processes and attitudes

The one element we haven't focused much on is time. While manufacturers haven't always been known to embrace change, we live in a world where change is constant. Now is the time for manufacturers to prove how they handle change management.

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