The Coronavirus has changed the perception and the future of additive manufacturing in a matter of weeks. What many in the consumer world considered trinkets and toys via 3D printers that a neighbor might make in her or his garage, has turned into deep admiration for the way that distributed manufacturing can actually help in times of crisis and in more normal times.
Additive manufacturing has gained plenty of “street cred” through COVID-19 as small and large manufacturers, many that were quietly making unique products that could, of course, be made only through additive manufacturing. The big 3D printer manufacturers themselves were also at the top of the news hour on a daily and weekly basis — from HP to Stratasys to 3D Systems and up and coming startups such as Carbon, Desktop Metal, MatterHackers, and even some smaller, lesser-known, but equally strong startup players that may not have been on your radar. The startups mentioned in this article planned to exhibit at the RAPID + TCT 2020 Startup Zone, a showcase of some of the most innovative new 3D technology companies.
One of the key areas learned from working on the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage in healthcare is that the future of additive manufacturing needs improved handling and finishing methods — aka post-processing of the final print. Keith Jeffcoat, CEO of Oryx Additive, explains “If we want the additive manufacturing industry to be a primary form of manufacturing in the future, we need to think holistically across the entire manufacturing process.” That includes making it easier to clean up and have a print ready to hand to an end user.
Materials science is a big part of the equation for creating the final products that customers want or need and there are many startups and established companies racing to keep with this fast-moving field. For example, NanoAL is making next-generation aluminum alloys through advanced materials and nanotechnology research. The company is combining economical raw materials with established AM processes to deliver optimized, cost-effective, and high-performance printed aluminum parts. These novel alloy compositions are designed specifically for Selective Laser Melting Additive Manufacturing, but many other materials companies, such as Taulman3D, are also developing unique, high-strength materials on the polymer side for those with FFF (fused filament manufacturing) machines. Or take a look at Fabric8, with its Electrochemical Additive Manufacturing (ECAM) process that can produce objects in solid metal.
Beyond hardware to aid in post-processing and materials science advances, one startup is aiming to make the business of making more streamlined. MakerOS, a collaboration platform for 3D printing businesses, is working on ways to integrate the variety of processes a business faces when handling additive manufacturing jobs — from generating quotes for 3D files that your customer submits to connecting your processes to Slack or Google Drive, to creating invoices from these activities.
The future of additive manufacturing, on a small and large scale, for crises and normal times, demands having a vast database of who can do what with 3D printers in small plants, but also interconnect with large, traditional manufacturing lines, supply chains, and certification agencies. There are plans for big national systems, but they are not fully enabled. Long time AM expert, Ed Tackett, Director of Workforce Development at the Additive Manufacturing Institute of Science and technology (AMIST) for the J B Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville (that’s a mouthful), has been rapidly building an emergency manufacturing network, as I see it, for the state of Kentucky. It is an entrepreneurial venture within a large institution.
Tackett’s work with finding materials to make PPE face shields is worth noting and we discussed it in the above healthcare post. He has been driving the missing link in healthcare where you might 3D print a simple swab out of pliable resin material, but not be able to use it because your hospital or clinic has not certified it. Read how they are succeeding as they work with doctors, dentists, and Bioengineering students to assemble COVID-19 test kits. Last week, they compiled more than 700 kits which included biohazard specimen bags, labels, sample vials filled with viral transport media, and commercially available swabs that are in short supply. The kits were immediately sent throughout Kentucky to test individuals for COVID-19.
Finally, the future of additive manufacturing is, like many industries, not out of the proverbial woods. I reached out to well-known additive manufacturing expert Terry Wohlers, who also publishes the annual state of the industry Wohlers Report 2020 and he had both positive and sobering remarks: “The future of additive manufacturing post-COVID? The industry will return, but slowly. It will be on pace with new product development and manufacturing. The virus has brought a lot of attention to additive manufacturing from the countless efforts around the production of face shields, nasal swabs, and ventilator parts. However, these efforts have not come close to making up for the loss in revenues from product sales and additive manufacturing services.”
As a growing industry, we have work to do, but that was and is always the case. But more than ever, additive manufacturing is poised to make an increasingly bigger impact in what people make and buy. The future of additive manufacturing still looks bright. Slower growing perhaps, but still bright.