Over the past decade, 3D printing technology has experienced high momentum, with innovation efforts focusing on making this additive manufacturing method capable of producing functional parts. Currently, innovation is not only about technology improvement but also about creating complete processes for each specific application. It is likely that this focus on process development will continue in the foreseeable future. In addition, in the coming five to 10 years, we expect to see two main trends make a major impact on the innovation landscape of the 3D printing space.
Due to growing customer and regulatory pressures, it is imperative to cut CO2 emissions, eliminate plastic waste, and mitigate environmental impacts. Meeting these challenges requires near-term technologies like bio-based materials and major process changes to enable circular economy. Sustainability has not been a priority in the 3D printing space yet, but it's increasingly critical for would-be 3D printing users in all industries.
What to expect:
3D printing does have a sustainability case to make on its own: It enables less waste and lower material use through part consolidation or design optimization, compared to parts that would otherwise be traditionally manufactured. However, "less waste" is not enough to claim 3D printing is a truly sustainable process. Developers will also need to explore circular business models like resource recovery (such as recycling of excess material, support structures, gases, or final parts at end of life), sharing platforms (such as shared 3D printing equipment to increase utilization rates), product use extension (such as part repair using 3D printing), product as a service (such as leasing 3D printing equipment or designing 3D-printed products for end-of-life reuse/recycling). Overall, sustainability-driven models and product development cases will become more and more common as a unique selling point.
- Signify (previously known as Philips Lighting) launched its 3D printing service in November 2019. With this service, the company designs custom luminaires tailored to a customer's exact needs and recyclable at the end of their life.
- Materials companies like Henkel and BASF have developed recycling programs for their 3D printing materials and packaging.
- Hardware developers like HP and Aerosint have improved 3D printing technology to enable surplus material reusability and reduction of wasted material during the manufacturing process.
- Efforts are underway to produce standard 3D printing filaments from waste plastics, including research projects at Aarhus University of Denmark and Université de Lorraine and Michigan Technological University.
Lux Take: Sustainability has not been a major innovation driver in 3D printing to date, but with all major industries being impacted by this trend, 3DP tech developers will need to catch on to sustainability quickly or risk being left behind.
The traditional manufacturing paradigm of low-cost, high-volume production of standard products is being turned on its head by the demand for diversified and personalized products in industries as diverse as chemicals, automotive, consumer packaged goods, and pharmaceuticals. Alternative manufacturing methods, driven by digital transformation technologies, are increasingly being used across industries. 3D printing, as an emerging alternative manufacturing method, is already employed for on-demand production, but current ecosystems have not yet been flexible and agile enough to use it as a true manufacturing solution.
What to expect:
3D printing service bureaus will continue to manufacture parts on demand with an increased focus on local production and speed – especially as local resiliency becomes more important to many companies in the aftermath of COVID-19. Although there are already hundreds of 3D printing service bureaus that can achieve short lead times, most of them are still not flexible or agile enough to react to and support new client needs, particularly for more significant production volumes. Having said that, 3D printing will truly enable on-demand manufacturing in the future where localization and short lead times are expected. Although producers face limitations due to hardware and materials, the main value driver will be software innovation, which will enable new, more sophisticated digital platforms. These platforms will not only help order 3D printing materials or 3D-printed parts but also help review life cycle costs, select desired production parameters with a few simple steps, and complete secure orders even if the user does not have any 3D printing expertise.
- To fight COVID-19, several companies produced medical parts using 3D printing. Although these parts were not 3D-printed before, the companies that have manufacturing flexibility managed to commercialize these products locally and quickly. Although users still need to be cautious about commercializing untested parts, such agility poses great potential to speed up the overall process.
- Online software platforms for part production through manufacturing partners continue to collaborate with others to simplify the whole process. For example, Xometry partnered with Dassault Systèmes to provide instant design quotes for users of SolidWorks and Catia, which are two widely used design softwares.
- 3YourMind offers product life cycle management (PLM), manufacturing execution system (MES), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to manufacturers and supply chain/logistics companies. 3YourMind helps companies analyze and determine 3D printability of parts and help them choose which applications could be better to 3D print.
Lux Take: 3D printing is often cited as a digital manufacturing technology, but there is still great need and opportunity for digital transformation-driven innovation in 3D printing itself. There are still many gaps to be filled to achieve the logistical simplicity 3D printing can provide – as 3D printing moves into production uses and aims to help streamline and localize supply chains, leaders in these software innovations will hold the key to unlocking its potential.
Sustainability and digital transformation are the two main themes that we come across in every industry. As both trends require active engagement of companies that are (or are planning to be) active in the 3D printing ecosystem, clients should be innovating internally or monitoring innovators aligned with these trends closely to be future-proof. Finally, in this respect, materials companies should participate not only as suppliers but also in the processes related to certification, testing, and regulations so that they can prepare their materials portfolio for a resilient 3D printing supply chain.