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Additive Manufacturing’s Rapid Evolution and Bright Future

David Giebenhain, Global Product Director - 3D Printing, Protolabs

When the first RAPID + TCT event was held in 1990, the additive manufacturing (AM) industry was in its infancy, with a comparatively small number of players making simple prototypes largely through stereolithography and extrusion-based 3D printing.

As the decades progressed, so, too, did the technology. But adoption rates remained relatively low as barriers like process knowledge, high cost of entry, application limitations and reliability concerns continued to stifle the industry.

It wasn’t until the past five years or so that additive manufacturing reached a state of maturity where most design professionals are using it to some degree for prototyping applications while a smaller, yet still substantial, number of organizations have started using it for production applications.

In part, this has been driven by technology advancements in the printing and processing equipment, materials, and software, which have ultimately led to higher quality, better performing parts delivered faster and at a lower cost. Another driver, particularly for growth in production applications, is the increased comfort with 3D printing that stems from experience using it for prototyping applications as well as awareness of other organizations that have been successful with their production applications.

By 2020, the AM industry was poised for steady growth—then the pandemic hit.

A Turning Point

With traditional R&D environments being temporarily inaccessible, 3D technology innovation and adoption took a minor blow. But amidst enormous demand for covid-related personal protective equipment and medical devices, production use cases for things like test swabs and ventilator parts rose at a stirring rate.

Riding a dominant news cycle, the AM industry and its application for medical production earned broad mainstream visibility. Suddenly, organizations across industries became aware of the technology’s true capabilities and moved towards adoption en masse.

Breaking Down Barriers

A few years ago, if you were a new engineer and started collaborating with senior colleagues on the design of a part or product, they might have steered you toward more familiar traditional manufacturing processes like injection molding, CNC machining, or investment casting along with an associated list of approved suppliers. This has traditionally been one of AM’s biggest barriers to adoption.

But as more engineers are trained on additive manufacturing in university environments, and potentially even using it at home with hobbyist-grade printers, AM processes will inevitably bleed into the workplace as entry-level engineers become more senior within their organizations.

Historically, organizational leadership has also been a barrier to the adoption of additive manufacturing. Many had reservations about the quality of printed parts – porosity, dimensional variability, and general consistency of mechanical properties among others. There were also no established AM standards to learn from or rely on, so the perceived risk was often too great.

Those were all valid concerns with such new processes, but, today, AM has reached a point where the performance, quality, and consistency of 3D printed parts can meet or often exceed what is possible via traditional processes.

Early adopters of additive production applications, like many companies in the aerospace and medical industries, are showcasing their results with greater frequency and triggering slower-moving industries and organizations to rethink 3D printing’s role within their framework.

The Rise of Service Bureaus

Increasingly, 3D printing service providers like Protolabs are being relied on to assist companies regardless of where they might be in their adoption of AM. By eliminating the need for its customers to invest many millions of dollars in the facility, equipment, and staff to print high quality parts, service bureaus eliminate one of the biggest barriers to entry.

Many organizations and professionals are still completely new to AM and may not know where to start. In that case, they can simply call their preferred service bureau and speak with an engineer about the project details for guidance on which processes and materials might be appropriate for their application.

Further, AM service bureaus are often at the forefront of 3D Printing technology, investigating and investing in the latest equipment and materials to best serve their customers. So, if a company is looking to push the envelope in terms of part size, level of detail, production quantity, or material performance, customers can rely on a service bureau to fulfill their needs.

An expansive suite of AM offerings, combined with the technical expertise and quality systems necessary to accommodate the most demanding customers make service bureaus like Protolabs a true one-stop-shop for 3D prototyping and production—which perfectly positions the industry and its stakeholders for success now and in the future.

A Bright Future

Today, additive manufacturing has nowhere to go but up. Machine technology continues to advance and mature, improving quality, consistency, speed, and cost. Material advancements are also a major growth driver for the industry with recent developments that have enabled the printing of true end-use parts, even for demanding applications in which there may be a requirement for parts to be biocompatible, ESD-safe, or fire retardant among others.

With readily availability of materials suited for end-use applications, combined with broader awareness of the 3D technology, organizations are more frequently starting their product development with AM in mind for the final production process, not just as a convenient tool for prototyping.

Design skills for AM are also dramatically improving, especially as professionals begin to adopt additive-focused software tools like generative design and topology optimization that enable engineers to extract the value of AM more easily by taking advantage of the design freedom inherent in these manufacturing processes.

As these design skills and software tools mature alongside continued development in equipment and materials, the value of 3D printing and its adoption will continue to grow at a rapid pace for both prototyping and production applications. Additive manufacturing is already widely used by the world’s most innovative companies, and it will soon be a common and critical tool for any company in the business of manufacturing.