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4 Burning Questions for Additive Manufacturing in 2019

2018 was a successful year for additive manufacturing in many ways. From the development of new technologies to innovative software solutions, the year saw the industry begin to deliver on its promises of providing an industrial manufacturing solution.
In spite of these positive trends, there are still important questions for the industry going forwards With that in mind, today we’re taking a look at 4 of the biggest questions facing additive manufacturing in 2019.

#1 Will we finally see high-volume additive manufacturing?

Short answer: Yes and no.
The ability to produce 3D-printed parts on a mass scale has long been a dream held by many in the industry. The benefits are clear: complex, often customised, products can be manufactured in a shorter timeframe and, theoretically, at a fraction of the cost.
But will we see a take-off in high-volume additive manufacturing this year?
To some degree, mass production already exists within certain specialised applications. Hearing aids are a great example, with over 90% of hearing aid manufacturers already using additive manufacturing.
There are also positive trends on the consumer side: products like eye frames and shoe insoles have been successfully produced additively, with several companies planning mass customisation on a larger scale.  Adidas, for example, is said to have had a production target of 100,000 parts by the end of 2018.

Additive manufacturing trends 3D-printed midsoles from Adidas
Adidas used Carbon’s CLIP technology to produce 3D-printed midsoles for its Futurecraft 4D shoes [Image credit: Adidas]

But to enable mass production across the board, there are still ongoing challenges related to:
1) Repeatability;
2) Speed;
3) Part quality;
4) Making the process more cost-effective.
Fortunately, steps are being taken to address each of these points.
To make additive manufacturing a viable option for manufacturing, companies must ensure that a 3D-printed part will be more cost-effective to produce than a part produced with conventional methods.  
HP is one company that has its eye set on making the AM process more cost-effective with the launch of its Metal Jet system for metal 3D printing last year.
Based on the same deposition technology as HP’s Multi Jet Fusion, the Metal Jet works by depositing a binder onto a bed of Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) powder. The system, targeting mass production, is said to make printing batches of up to 50,000 parts more cost-effective than injection moulding.
Related: Interview: HP’s Global Head of Metals on the Impact of HP Metal Jet
Evolve Additive Solutions is another company looking to enable mass production.
Focusing on polymers, the company announced its new production-speed “STEP” (short for Selective Toner Electrophotographic Process) technology last year. The approach is unique, not only in the development of a new 3D printing process, but also because Evolve’s STEP technology is being developed as an alternative to conventional methods, targeting volume manufacturing applications.
As both solutions are set to be fully commercialised in 2020, we’ll have to wait to see their impact.
Realistically, 2019 won’t see additive manufacturing becoming a replacement for mass production. What we will see, however, is a greater number of companies integrating the technology into their production workflows, becoming a complement to existing manufacturing methods.

#2 Will more AM-specific materials become available?

Short answer: Yes.
Materials diversity is crucial to further industrialise 3D printing. But there are limitations around the availability of materials developed specifically for the 3D printing process.
This issue is particularly acute when it comes to industry-specific applications, such as within the automotive industry.
However, the increasing use of 3D printing for manufacturing applications has driven materials manufacturers to develop new materials to suit those applications.
In 2018 alone, global materials suppliers such as BASF and Solvay offered new choices for polymers and metals. 2019 will continue to build on this progress, with new materials set to be released that are more application-specific.
Notably, 2019 promises to be the year of polymer 3D printing, with high-performance polymers and composites predicted to take off.
However, new materials will also bring new challenges, such as material certification and an even greater need for better machine control.

#3 Will we see more automated post-processing solutions?

Short answer: Yes.
The post-processing stage is one of the least optimised parts of the additive manufacturing workflow, significantly increasing overall process time.
The inherently manual nature of current post-processing operations is a key factor in the post-processing bottleneck. However, new developments could significantly change this in 2019.  
There are three ways to optimise post-processing that will gain greater traction in 2019:
1) Greater design optimisation
On the design side, solutions are emerging to facilitate easier support removal, for example. Take Materialise’s e-Stage for Metal software, which automatically generates support structures for metal components. Generated supports are thin and easy to remove, and reportedly can reduce the time spent on metal support removal by 50%.
2) Minimising the need for post-processing
New technologies are also helping to minimise the need for post-processing. One example is Velo3D, which has developed a highly controllable metal powder bed fusion system. Based on what the company calls “Intelligent Fusion,” the system combines software and hardware to reliably and repeatably print objects that require almost zero support structures.
3) Automated support removal and surface finishing
Since most of the solutions available today can’t completely eliminate post-processing, the importance of automated post-processing solutions will grow.
In 2018, some exciting innovations in this space came from PostProcess Technologies. Targeting support removal and surface finishing, the company has developed a line of automated post-processing hardware solutions.
Other recent news pointing to the growing focus on post-processing comes from America Makes, an additive manufacturing accelerator, which announced it is to award $1.6 million to fund the advancement of post-processing technologies, particularly for Selective Laser Melting.
Given the latest advancements in this sphere, 2019 may very well be the year that some of the most pressing challenges in post-processing will be addressed. This will enable companies to further expand and scale their AM operations.

NITOR automated surface finishing for 3D printing PostProcess Technologies
PostProcess Technologies’ NITOR system offers automated surface finishing for 3D printing [Image credit: PostProcess Technologies]


#4 Will software become essential to scaling up AM production?

Short answer: Yes
As the industry targets greater efficiency, reliability and quality for production, software will become a vital element of this process.  
Alongside hardware, the additive manufacturing process heavily relies on software for both design and managing production workflows.
On the design side, Harold Sears, Ford Motor Company’s Technical Leader for Additive Manufacturing Technologies recently stated in an interview with AMFG:
“By and large, we’re trained through engineering schools to think about designs that can be made with conventional processes.  DfAM is going to be asking people to start to think differently about what they do and how they approach their designs. Software will be a huge part of that.”
When designing parts for 3D printing, software tools like generative design and topology optimisation can be used to create structures and features once deemed impossible or too cost-prohibitive to produce.
These structures enable lightweight parts to be created with less material waste. .
The market for advanced additive manufacturing design solutions is booming, with a number of startups, like nTopology, Frustum, and ParaMatters, as well as larger players like Autodesk, looking to redefine how AM parts are designed.
On the management side, workflow software will be crucial to enabling production with 3D printing.
Integrating additive manufacturing into new and existing workflows requires a high level of connectivity between machines and the ability to coordinate these processes.
Workflow software, like AMFG, allows companies to achieve this by automating and coordinating each stage of the production process, from managing requests to production and even post-processing.  
In 2019, companies will increasinly need to factor software as they implement their AM workflows. This will ultimately ensure a scalable, efficient additive manufacturing process.

New Year, New Opportunities

2019 promises further progress and developments across the spectrum of additive manufacturing. Alongside these opportunities, however, comes a number of questions that will need to be answered in time – and our list only scratches the surface.
2019 will, therefore, be the year of looking for the answers to some of the most burning questions the AM industry currently faces – and hopefully finding them.