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3D Printing in 2018: 7 Trends that Shaped the Industry

2018 has been a year of growth and maturity for the additive manufacturing industry.
 
The 3D printing hype of previous years, where consumer 3D printing was predicted to lead to 3D printers in every home, famously gave way to a wave of disillusionment when this turned out not to be the case.
 
Since then, we’ve seen the industry move away from this hype, transitioning to focus on the value of additive manufacturing as an industrial solution.  
 
While still a relatively small percentage of the $12 trillion manufacturing industry, additive manufacturing has verifiably stepped into the fore as a technology that can enable digital transformation across industries.
 
In this article, we take a look at 7 key trends that helped to shape the additive manufacturing industry in 2018.
 

#1 Additive Manufacturing Continues to Mature

 
AM is an industrial solution
 
The advancements additive manufacturing has made in the realm of industrial applications signals a growing maturity within the industry.
 
Crucially, these developments have been, for the most part, not immediately visible or designed to replace traditional manufacturing. Rather, they reflect gradual, incremental progress, as the nuances of the technology are discovered.
 
This transition was especially highlighted at the Formnext trade show in November, the industry’s largest advanced manufacturing event. Since its inception, Formnext has been a key indicator of wider industry trends.
 
AM for production was a key talking point at this year’s trade show, with manufacturers demonstrating industrial applications of their systems, materials and software. But as many have pointed out, the way we’re thinking about additive has changed. Formnext demonstrated that it’s increasingly less about the ‘revolution’ of 3D printing and more about the applications that can benefit from the technology.
 
Additionally, the array of industrial presentations, coupled with the fact that Formnext continues to grow each year — 2018 saw a 25% increase in visitors compared to 2017 — further illustrates how the additive manufacturing has become a key part of the manufacturing landscape.
 
The need for standardisation
 
The increasing focus on standardisation this year is another sign of the industry’s growing maturity.
 
The need to bridge the gap when it comes to standardising processes, systems — and even terminology — has come to the increasingly come to the fore, in line with the growing focus on additive manufacturing for production.
 
As Nano Dimension Co-Founder, Simon Fried points out:

“To properly mature as an industry, you need to have standards that everybody subscribes to. You need to have processes, like ways of tracing products and ensuring IP protection for files. So [in the future] it will be less of the glitz and glamour and more of the nuts and bolts of how to deploy these technologies effectively.”

2018 has seen some key milestones achieved in this area, including:

  • The publishing of  the second version of the Standardisation Roadmap for Additive Manufacturing in June;
  • The launch of the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in July, with the aim of identifying key standardisation gaps;
  • And this November, experts from research institutions, standards development organisations and government officials gathered at Formnext to hold the first transatlantic AM Standards Forum.

 
Compared to traditional manufacturing, which has had centuries to develop standardised processes and methods for production, additive manufacturing is still in the early stages of this journey. But the signs of maturity that the industry has shown this year indicates a steady, if gradual, progress towards production.
 

Additive Manufacturing Standards Structure framework for 3D printing ISO and ASTM International
ASTM/ISO framework for additive manufacturing

#2 Increased Collaboration

This year has highlighted the importance of partnerships and collaboration in furthering the advancement of additive manufacturing.   
 
Establishing joint ventures and committees and forging, consortiums and strategic partnerships have been indicative of stakeholders combining their efforts to drive the industrialisation of additive manufacturing.
 
Ultimaker, for example, has partnered with global chemicals manufacturers to expand its portfolio of materials. “What most people what from a 3D printer — especially if they’re going to start using them for production — is for their prototype to be as close to the real end part as possible,” explains Ultimaker’s North America President John Kawola in a recent interview with AMFG.
 
“So if the materials can match up and be the same types of chemistry or resins, there’s not only a feel-good factor there, but also an engineering, certification and classification value.”
 
Similarly, HP, which launched its Metal Jet System this year, has partnered with leading manufacturers (like GKN and Parmatech) to offer customers its metal 3D printing services. “While [HP] may be the world’s best printing company, we decided to partner with those who have expertise in producing metal parts for industry,” says Tim Weber, Global Head of HP Metal Jet.
 
Partnerships are also important for OEMs. Within aerospace, for example, Etihad Airways Engineering (MRO services provider) announced its partnership with EOS earlier this year. The partnership focuses on the production of 3D-printed aircraft parts and aims to qualify the production process and materials to meet aviation standards.
 
The partnership and others are just another example of OEMs and system manufacturers collaborating to further accelerate developments within specific verticals.

 
But it’s not only commercial agreements that have been signed.
 
On a governmental level, there is increasing recognition of the importance of AM within manufacturing.
 
Just this month, CECIMO, the European Association representing Machine Tool Industries, created an additive manufacturing committee to provide AM businesses with a platform to discuss EU policy affecting the industry.
 
With the expertise of over 350 organisations, the committee is focused on issues relating to workforce development, regulatory framework and AM-related statistics. These are important topics to address if AM is to continue on its industrial growth trajectory.
 

#3 Another Successful Year for Metal 3D Printing

HP Metal Jet
A key milestone in metal 3D printing was the release of HP’s Metal Jet system

 
Metal 3D printing has been the focus of much attention in recent years, and 2018 has been no exception.
 
At the start of the year, MIT’s annual Technology Review included metal 3D printing as one of the top 10 breakthrough technologies of 2018, noting that the technology is “becoming cheap and easy enough to be a potentially practical way of manufacturing parts.”
 
But where has metal 3D printing seen growth?
 
Growth in metal technologies
For DMLS, there’s has been an increase in applications from 8% in 2017 to 21% in 2018, according to Sculpteo’s annual State of 3D Printing report.
 
Powder-bed fusion technologies have gained traction, offering an effective solution for high-end, low-volume applications in the aerospace and medical industries.
 
2018 also saw Metal Binder Jetting stepping to the fore, targeting a wider range of use cases in automotive and industrial goods. The scalable nature and speed of the metal binder jetting process make it appealing for those seeking to integrate 3D printing into existing manufacturing workflows.
 
New players

Perhaps enticed by the potential of 3D printing, several new players also entered the market this year. Perhaps the biggest example is HP, who launched its new Metal Jet system in September. The system, which is based on HP’s Binder Jetting technology, was developed with a focus on mass production from the outset.
 

HP Multi Jet Fusion and Metal Jet Printing processes
HP’s Multi Jet Fusion and Metal Jet Printing processes are based on its Binder Jetting technology (Source: HP)

 
Metal AM has come a long way…but there’s still more to be done
Admittedly, key challenges still remain for manufacturers to solve when it comes to metal 3D printing. These include the issues of print speeds, part quality and process repeatability. Digital Alloys, which closed its Series B Funding in the summer of 2018, has developed its Joule metal 3D printing to solve these issues. The company was awarded its first two patents for this technology this year.
 
Speaking with AMFG, the Digital Alloys CEO Duncan McCallum explains, “There simply aren’t many good options today if you want to use [metal] 3D printing for production. This is because systems are too slow, production costs are too high and the processes are too complex. This makes it difficult to get consistently high-quality metal parts.”
 
That said, the range of new metal technologies and systems unveiled during 2018 is a positive indication of the level of activity and research being undertaken to further the development of metal 3D printing.
 

#4 Continued growth of materials

Sandvik_powders
Metal powder supplied by Sandvik (Source: Sandvik)

 
2018 was an important year for materials innovation and growth. As 3D printing shifts to encompass production, the industry has been driven to provide a greater range of engineering-grade and high-performance materials, in addition to higher-quality prototyping materials.
 
In 2018, plastics and polymers continued to make up the lion’s share of the 3D printing materials market. This proportion grew to almost $5.5 billion in 2018 compared to $1 billion in 2017, according to a report by SmarTech.
 
This may not come as much of a surprise considering that 2018 saw a number of large chemical companies entering the industry as well as existing players unveiling broader material solutions.
 
For example, Mitsubishi Chemical made its foray into the polymer 3D printing materials market earlier this year after acquiring Dutch Filaments, a manufacturer and supplier of polymer 3D printing filaments.
 
The chemical giant’s expansion into 3D printing is also another example of global companies acknowledging the significant business opportunities to be found within the industry.  

 
On the metals side, metal powder revenues are reported to have reached $300 million in 2018.
 
Interestingly, the rise of metal Binder Jetting in 2018 enabled companies to reduce the cost of metal materials by using comparatively cheaper Metal Injection Molding (MIM) powders. These powders could also potentially open the door to a much wider range of already well-studied materials.
 
As far as materials are concerned, 2018 has seen a renewed focus on diversifying the range of 3D printable materials, with both new and established companies investing resources into bringing new materials to market. Going forward, this will help to facilitate an even greater range of 3D printing applications, in addition to lowering material costs.
 

#5 Software: a Key to Success

3 pillars for 3D printing: hardware, materials, software
Hardware, materials and software form the foundation for a scalable AM process

 
As one of the three pillars of additive manufacturing, software one of the crucial element to accelerating the growth of additive manufacturing.
 
While typically overlooked when compared to hardware and materials developments, the last 12 months has seen a significant upswing in activity, investment and development initiatives for software.
 
Growth in simulation software
Key milestones in software were achieved in the area of software-enabled quality assurance solutions, such as process simulation and in-situ monitoring software.
 
Simulation software has been gaining significant traction throughout the year, with big names like Siemens and Materialise launching new or expanding existing software simulation solutions.
 
The growth of simulation software can be generally attributed to the fact that 3D printing, particularly with metals, has been moving into the realm of production. This requires greater process repeatability and consistency.
 
By using simulation software, designers and engineers are able to gain valuable insight into the printing process so that they can reduce or eliminate potential failures before they occur.

 
The need for workflow automation
Another element that has seen increasing recognition is the need for workflow software to automate, manage and create a scalable additive manufacturing process. AMFG announced several partnerships with companies choosing to adopt workflow software to digitise and streamline manual processes.
 
On the security side, key players like
LEO Lane have emerged as the need for security solutions and IP protection becomes more acute.
 

#6 A new focus on post-processing

PostProcess Technologies before and after pictures
PostProcess Technologies demonstrates the importance of post-processing with before and after pictures (Source: PostProcess Technologies)

 
Another historically overlooked element of the additive manufacturing process has been the post-processing stage. A time-consuming and laborious part of the AM process, post-processing has tended to go under the radar.
 
The rise of automated post-processing solutions
It’s not surprising therefore that post-processing has been identified as a stage that needs development most to enable mass production.
 
However, 2018 has seen several steps being made to change this, with the development of highly automated post-processing solutions.
 
Looking at the hardware, some of the exciting innovations come from PostProcess Technologies. The US-based company offers post-processing solutions that automate support removal and surface finishing steps for plastic and metal parts.  

“As each of our customers scales their AM operations, they’re seeing more and more of a bottleneck in what we call the third step of the additive process: post-print. With our solutions, they’re able to automate that process and remove that bottleneck. ” PostProcess Technologies CEO, Jeff Mize

Interestingly, Post Process has announced its partnership with German manufacturer Rosler to bring its solutions to the European market.

 
Managing post-processing digitally
On the software side, the management of post-processing operations is also gaining attention, to the emergence of advanced post-production management solutions.
 
Such solutions allow AM users connect
post-production planning to the rest of their AM workflows to create a seamless, scalable production operation.

 

#7 A technology for smart factories

Ford Motor Company Advanced Manufacturing Center in Michigan
Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Manufacturing Center opened in Michigan in December (Source: Ford)

Finally, 2018 established that 3D printing will play an integral part in the creation of smart, digital factories in the future.
 
Smart factories rely on connectivity, digitisation and advanced technologies to enable more flexible and agile manufacturing.
 
As a digital, toolless technology, additive manufacturing neatly fits into this vision. 2018 hinted at several examples of how companies can achieve the vision of a smart factory with 3D printing.
 
For example, Ford Motor Company recently shared how it’s using 3D printing alongside collaborative robots and virtual reality applications in its new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center in Michigan.
 
With 23 3D printers on the factory floor, Ford can work with numerous types of processes and materials, such as sand, nylon and carbon-fibre composites. These will be used to directly produce everything from brake parts to car interior components and to assembly tools — a flexibility few manufacturing technologies can provide.
 
Another example comes from BigRep, a German 3D printer manufacturer, which has unveiled plans to optimise its 3D printers for use in smart factories.
 
For this, the company has partnered with engineering company Bosch Rexroth, which will share its expertise in smart factory solutions.
 
Though this partnership, BigRep’s 3D printers will be equipped with Bosch Rexroth’s state-of-art CNC control systems and drives, enabling full connectivity and data processing capabilities.

 

Industrial 3D Printing in 2018: A tale of automation and scalability

With only a couple of weeks to go until 2019, it’s safe to say that 2018 has been an exciting year for the additive manufacturing industry.
 
From the increasing role of software to the rising focus on post-processing, the AM industry has been growing as a digital manufacturing technology, viable not only for prototyping but increasingly for production.
 
Not only has the industry moved further away from the hype of previous years, it has also demonstrated its growing maturity alongside traditional manufacturing.
 
With developments across the scope of hardware, materials and software, 2019 will see the industry building on these advancements to further drive the industrial use of 3D printing technologies.  
 

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