Market research firm SmarTech Analysis recently released its data for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. It determined that, in 2021, the 3D printing sector reached $10.6 billion in revenue, excluding the revenues associated with hardware maintenance contracts and post-processing equipment. The firm further projects that AM is expected to grow to over $50 billion by 2030.
This growth is closely pinned to the trend that large manufacturers will increasingly use the technology for mass production. However, in order for AM to reach wide-scale adoption, it will need to advance significantly in three crucial and interrelated areas: throughput, factory integration, and quality control. Fortunately for the industry, these are all also issues that are being actively addressed.
3D Printing Throughput
Due to its roots as a prototyping technology, 3D printing was never designed with mass production in mind. Instead, its ability to create complex shapes has been limited to one-off parts or small batch manufacturing. For that reason, firms across the 3D printing industry have been working to develop systems that can make many parts as rapidly as possible, a concept known as throughput.
Among the leaders in this regard is HP, which spent years researching the technology before finally unveiling technologies capable of rapid production both in plastics and metals. The 2D printing giant has ported its expertise in inkjet printheads over to 3D printing with a technology called Multi Jet Fusion (MJF). MJF is already being used to produce large batches of polymer parts for everything from eyewear to grocery bots.
This is just the beginning for the company, which is now rolling out its Metal Jet technology. A form of what is called “metal binder jetting,” Metal Jet deposits a liquid binder onto metal powder, creating a component that must then be sintered in a furnace. Customers as large as Volkswagen are investing in the technology with a plan to mass produce up to 100,000 metal components annually for consumer vehicles.
However, HP isn’t the only company in this quickly evolving space. A widely publicized startup called Desktop Metal is working to speed up metal binder jetting. GE, too, is working on its own version of the technology. Altogether, these companies are ushering in an era in which low-cost metal powders can be used to 3D print large numbers of parts in a single job, potentially changing the cost structure for metal 3D printing altogether.
This means that they will be taking on the established leaders in metal 3D printing, which typically rely on zapping high powered laser beams at expensive metal powders. These companies are working on increasing throughput, as well, by adding up to 12 lasers to their machines.
3D Printing Factories
While a fleet of 3D printers may be capable of manufacturing at volume, that doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily fit into an existing factory operation. In large part, this is due to the fact that they lack mass production-level software.
Now, a handful of startups have emerged to take on the challenge of developing AM-specific software for manufacturing execution systems (MES). These tools make it possible to both manage a fleet of 3D printers and connect them to a company’s existing production software. They typically aid in the entire order-to-fabrication workflow. This means order quoting and tracking, print file preparation, print job monitoring and data collection, printer fleet queuing, quality control, and shipping.
MES software necessarily connects to a business’s existing software tools. This includes product lifecycle management (PLM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and general IT software. While PLM might include a company’s preferred 3D modeling software, ERP will be made up of everything from payroll programs to tools for tracking overall finances.
MES platforms are now working to take all of the software that a manufacturer might already be working with and inserting 3D printing into the mix. However, they’re not just limiting themselves to AM. Many MES developers are looking to connect with other production equipment, such as CNC machines. Then, with the help of machine learning, the entire workflow can be improved automatically as data from each order and each machine job feeds back into the work cycle. Artificial intelligence is significantly adding to the capabilities of MES software.
3D Printing Quality Control
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to widespread AM adoption is quality control. This is because, with additive, each part is distinct. Every point on the build platform may be slightly different and even the slightest variation in a printing parameter may change the microstructure of the printed object.
In turn, an object printed at one angle will not be the same as one printed at another. And, because parts are built up layer by layer, it is difficult to validate the internal geometries of an item once printing is complete. As a result, the only true way to assure the quality of a printed object is with a CT scan, typically a cost-prohibitive method for inspecting multitudes of parts.
Fortunately, not only are newer CT scanning systems with lower price tags coming onto the market, but there are other tools that are being used to ensure the quality of printed parts. Among them is computer simulation. Companies like ANSYS have developed software that can anticipate any defects that occur during the printing process and compensate for them. Hexagon is taking this one step further by predicting issues at the microscopic level.
Meanwhile, firms like Sigma Labs and Additive Assurance have created hardware to monitor the build chambers of metal 3D printers to detect errors. Increasingly, these tools will enable active feedback so that the machines can quickly correct issues during the print process. When connected with MES software and 3D printing simulation, the equipment can learn from past errors and address them before they even happen in the future.
Altogether, these areas are advancing at incredible rates, in large part because manufacturers see the value in being able to produce objects from digital files on demand. As companies as large as Ford, GE, and Siemens look to 3D printing to produce quality end parts, they are driving the entire additive market to bend to their needs. To reach a whopping $50 billion by the end of the century, the 3D printing industry has to be capable of making millions of parts for those customers.
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