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Industrial 3D Printing: The Next Phase of Evolution

When deployed effectively, industrial 3D printing has enormous potential. It can unlock stronger, lighter parts, produce more reliable hardware with fewer points of failure, and, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, cut waste and material costs by almost 90%.

However, integrating additive manufacturing (AM) into a broader manufacturing framework is complex, and the ramifications go far beyond purchasing hardware. To succeed in the additive space, manufacturers need to ensure they have the context, tools, and expertise to facilitate the entire production process, from design to post-production and part qualification.

A Barrier to Adoption

Having worked in the aerospace and defense sectors for 20 years, I’ve seen industrial 3D printing evolve from an emerging technology to a critical component of the manufacturing ecosystem. My first exposure to the field was at SpaceX, where I served as the director of quality engineering, a role centered on expanding supply chain efforts in developing technologies.

After moving into contract manufacturing, my focus shifted from fabricating parts to evaluating the production process. While the industry had the technology to print parts, it lacked the data and tools necessary to industrialize and democratize AM. The absence of streamlined testing, inspection, qualification, and validation methods posed a significant barrier to mass adoption.

This experience inspired me to launch ASTRO Mechanical Testing Laboratory, the first testing house dedicated entirely to industrial 3D printing. 

Necessary Innovation

With the advent of new technologies in fields like energy and aerospace, AM is the only process that can produce the sophisticated parts and materials needed to power the next generation of innovation.

Complex launch vehicles can’t be built on a foundation of old technology. They need new parts and materials with properties that can go further and last longer. Similarly, the advanced hardware used in wind turbines, solar panels, and other renewable energy infrastructure requires unique materials and processes. To meet the demands of tomorrow, investing in industrial 3D printing is not just an option. It’s a necessity. 

That said, the technology still comes with considerable production costs. In addition, with its unique operational requirements and distinct personnel needs, it can be challenging to integrate industrial 3D printing into the broader ecosystem. To overcome this, manufacturers need to take a strategic approach that addresses every element of implementation.

Investing in Process

In some ways, the small and medium-sized manufacturers entering the additive space now are at an advantage. Over the past decade, AM has made great strides. The hardware has become more mature and versatile. In many cases, industrial 3D printing can yield smarter, more sustainable solutions than traditional manufacturing methods. However, adopting AM goes beyond investing in physical machinery and infrastructure.

To create an environment conducive to high-volume production, manufacturers need rigorous and efficient ways to test and qualify products. As such, along with investing in hardware, manufacturers must also dedicate resources to research and development activities focused on honing materials, refining processes, and establishing systems that support the pre- and post-production stages. 

By investing in research and development at the front end, they’ll ultimately achieve a time- and cost-effective process and ensure their technology can produce parts that are repeatable, traceable, and stable.

Industrializing AM

In 2022, the global AM market was valued at approximately $16.69 billion. By 2030, experts predict that this figure could reach $74.70 billion. Additive technologies are improving faster than ever, with new hardware and materials constantly being developed. Ensuring there is a robust ecosystem in place to foster this evolution is essential.

Industrializing AM is not just about being able to make thousands of parts. It is about creating the platform to support this production. Today, many of the specifications against which we measure industrial 3D printing are based on traditional methods like molding and casting. To move the discipline forward, manufacturers need industry-wide standards explicitly designed for AM, along with consistent practices for testing and qualification.

As the field matures, a shared understanding of processes and materials will be vital in driving widespread adoption and further innovation. That’s why events like RAPID + TCT are so crucial.

By bringing industrial 3D printing experts, suppliers, and customers together under one roof, RAPID + TCT provides an invaluable opportunity to exchange ideas, forge relationships, and explore the latest studies and applications of additive technology. AM is a powerful tool, but it will take research and collaboration to unlock its full capacity for transformation. When the industry converges at RAPID + TCT, that future is possible.

Humna KhanHumna Khan is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of ASTRO Mechanical Testing Laboratory, where she collaborates closely with industry leaders to ascertain the properties of 3D-printed metal alloys and composites. She is also the Chief Operating Officer and Partner at MIMO Technik, an AM company that builds production flight hardware for OEMs and new space companies.

With a two-decade career in the aerospace and defense industry, Khan has worked with the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense (DoD), SpaceX, and NASA. She was the youngest Associate Professor at the School of Engineering at California State University, Los Angeles. Khan has five degrees in engineering and business disciplines. In addition, she holds a postgraduate qualification in strategic business development and is a Six Sigma Black Belt for Lean Production.