10 Predictions on the Future of 3D Printing [Expert Roundup]

21 August 2019

Without a doubt, 2019 is an exciting time for 3D printing. The industry continues to move towards industrialisation, and the technology is increasingly becoming part of the wider manufacturing ecosystem.
But in such a rapidly evolving industry, it can be difficult to keep up with the key trends that are driving the future of 3D printing.  
To help you better understand where 3D printing is headed, we’ve sifted through over 30 of our Expert Interviews conducted over the last 12 months and extracted key insights as to what the future holds for this exciting technology. 

1. 3D printing will become a mainstream technology for serial production

A 3D-printed stator ring and impeller [Image credit: VELO3D]
A 3D-printed stator ring and impeller [Image credit: VELO3D]


“Additive manufacturing is headed for very exciting times because it’s gradually becoming mainstream.” 

Andy Kalambi, CEO of Rize
3D printing has long passed the point of being viewed only as a prototyping solution. 
Everyday, companies are finding new ways to incorporate the technology into their production, with applications ranging from tooling to spare/replacement parts and some end-use components. 
From automotive to consumer goods, companies across industries are becoming aware of the advantages 3D printing offers for production. According to Sculpteo’s 2019 State of 3D Printing report, 51% of companies are actively using 3D printing for production
There are, of course, the well-publicised cases. For example, large automotive companies like Ford, Volkswagen and BMW are already producing  3D-printed parts for their vehicles. Late last year, BMW announced that it had fitted its one-millionth 3D-printed part for its BMW i8 Roadster.
While the overall volume of parts being printed in these cases is small relative to mass manufacturing volumes, the number, as well as the range of parts produced with 3D printing, are only set to increase.  
The next step for both the technology and the industry will be to maintain this momentum and work towards enabling more applications on a larger scale. 


“We’re reaching an inflection point and the number of parts that are actually going into production is increasing. Five years from now, you’ll see a lot of contract manufacturers that have scaled up considerably and have hundreds of these systems on their floor, producing parts with long-term contracts for production.”

Zachary Murphree, VP of Technology Partnerships at VELO3D
A key element that will enable such production volumes is the technology. Over the last few years, new technologies have been brought to market, and a number have already been announced for the years ahead.
For example, on the metal 3D printing side there is huge potential for newer metal binder jetting technologies to carve out a larger share of the traditional metal manufacturing market. Companies like Desktop Metal, 3DEO, ExOne, HP and GE are all working on next-generation metal binder jetting solutions to achieve this.
With lower hardware and material costs than other metal 3D printing technologies, these metal binder jetting machines have the potential to offer higher-volume part production at a cost-competitive price.
Of course, 3D printing will not replace machining, casting or injection moulding. The true goal for the technology is to become a viable production method that can be used on par with other technologies. 
As more effort is being put into ensuring greater repeatability and speed with industrial 3D printing, we’re getting ever-closer to reaching this goal.

2. Design software for additive will become more integrated and easier to use

Autodesk Fusion 360 joints [Image credit: Autodesk]
Autodesk Fusion 360 joints [Image credit: Autodesk]


“One important trend is the development of design software tools for AM. The next step is for them to become fully and seamlessly integrated into popular CAD software products.”

Terry Wohlers, founder and President of Wohlers Associates
Designing for additive manufacturing is a challenging process, not least because it can be counterintuitive for engineers that have been trained to design for traditional manufacturing. 
Further complicating this is Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, much of which until recently hasn’t been optimised for the design requirements of 3D printing. 

“Additive manufacturing can do some incredible things in terms of creating complex geometries, but to expect one person or even a team of people to sit down and create those sorts of geometry would create a real bottleneck if it was all being done using conventional tools.” 

Ian Campbell, Professor at Loughborough University
For example, it can be difficult to use traditional CAD software to design components made with graded materials, create lattice structures or model porosity. 
Combining multiple software packages can alleviate this limitation to a degree. However, switching between different software solutions is a highly inefficient process. In an ideal world, engineers and designers would work in a single design environment without the need to move data from one software product to another.
Fortunately, software companies are beginning to develop integrated design solutions for additive manufacturing. 
Companies like Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes and PTC are beginning to explore ways to make it as easy as possible for engineers to optimise their designs for additive manufacturing. 
Take Autodesk’s Netfabb as an example. Developed to work with 3D printing STL files, Netfabb can analyse and repair files, generate support structures and lattices and run a simulation for a design of a metal 3D-printed part — all in one package.  
Similarly, PTC is offering its Creo 6.0 software to enable design and print preparation in one environment. At the end of 2018, PTC acquired generative design software company, Frustum. The company is now working to add generative design technology, which is often combined with 3D printing, to its CAD platform. 
Ultimately, creating integrated 3D printing software solutions will be a crucial piece to the puzzle of taking the technology into the mainstream. 

“We’ll see more software tools that help engineers design parts better for a given process. Software-driven build setups like orientation, pre-deformation will be part of that … These developments will help to reduce the number of iterations needed, especially if the goal is printing for production.” 

Greg Paulsen, Director of Application Engineering at Xometry

3. Focusing on education will enable more 3D printing applications and adoption

The Barnes Group Advisors
[Image credit: TBGA]


“In terms of skills, in my opinion, innovation is all about people and technologies. There’s no point in pushing for advanced technologies without the people to adopt them.”

Revannth Murugesan, Managing Director at Carbon Performance 
Much has been said about the need for more education within the 3D printing industry. Our recent State of the Industry Survey revealed a lack of education as being the biggest challenge faced by service bureaus today. 
While adopting 3D printing for prototyping is relatively straightforward, establishing 3D printing for production can be challenging. Not only is investment in hardware required, but companies must also commit the time to develop the expertise needed.  
Lack of expertise, in particular, can create a lot of barriers to entry. For one, without proper knowledge about additive manufacturing, companies will likely struggle to develop a business case or use case for 3D printing. 

“That workforce element is really critical right now. There are not enough engineers, managers, executives who truly understand the technology well enough to work and develop a strategy to get what they need to get out of it.” 

John Barnes, Founder of The Barnes Group Advisors

“The industry is recognising what additive manufacturing can’t do as well as the fact that it can do a lot more than most are using it for today.” 

Harold Sears, Technical Leader of Additive Manufacturing Technologies at Ford
That said, awareness about the capabilities of 3D printing is increasing gradually. A lot of effort is being put into educating the market on how to get started with 3D printing and extract the most value out of it. 
At the same time, companies are launching both online and on-site courses, organising user tradeshows and workshops and creating educational content to spread the word about 3D printing. 
Consultancy firm, the Barnes Group Advisors, for example, launched an online course with Purdue University earlier this year to provide engineers with the ability to attain relevant knowledge in additive manufacturing. 
Only when companies learn about the capabilities and limitations of 3D printing, will they be able to use this knowledge to develop successful applications for the technology. 
Take Boyce Technologies as an example. The engineering firm purchased a large-scale 3D printer to create prototypes for communications systems like information kiosks and emergency response systems. 
However, the company was willing to experiment with 3D printing to understand its true capabilities. 
By learning the ins and out of the technology, Boyce discovered that the same 3D printer used for prototyping could also be used to make certain end-use polymer parts. Since then, the technology has become a key part of Boyce’s business and is used for production applications 90% of the time. 
Ultimately, as the understanding of AM grows, its users will be able to identify more industrial applications for the technology, pushing the scope of 3D printing to new horizons.

4. Dental will adopt 3D printing as a dominant production technology

Dental 3D printing market growth
[Image credit: SmarTech Analysis]


“In dentistry, you could, in theory, have a great case for converting 80% plus of the means of production to an additive technology.” 

Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Analysis
3D printing is already playing a huge role in the dental industry, producing crowns, surgical guides and the majority of dental aligner moulds. But the technology has the potential to become a dominant technology in this sector. 
A report by SmarTech Analysis indicates that 3D printer sales within the dental industry will exceed sales of machining hardware by 2025, and the technology will become the leading production method for dental restorations and devices worldwide by 2027.  
Driving this paradigm shift is the evolution of resin-based 3D printing technologies like SLA, DLP and material jetting. Resin-based 3D printers can produce custom dental devices with excellent surface quality and fine feature detail at a fast speed. The dental industry can benefit from these capabilities, as dentists can provide services faster and cheaper.   

“We’re seeing that 3D printing is becoming one of the key tools in areas like dental care and dental restoration. The digital thread there has been largely developed all the way from intraoral scanning to the workflows and the planning — not just in the lab, but also in the dental clinic. So there you can see a market that is ready for mass adoption.”

Avi Reichental, Founder of XponentialWorks
Furthermore, resin 3D printers are becoming increasingly affordable for dental labs, with a price point of roughly $5,000 on average. These printers are also optimised to work with certified dental printing resins, the number of which has significantly grown over the last few years. 
EnvisionTec, one of the largest resin 3D printer manufacturers, offers 13 different types of resin materials optimised for dental applications. 
Formlabs, another key player in the resin 3D printing market, offers 5 types of resins, some of which can be used to directly produce dental prosthetics. The company is also said to have increased its market share in the dental 3D printing market more than 20-fold over the last two years. 
Additive manufacturing has penetrated a significant number of sectors and industries. However, dental appears as the primary market in which digital manufacturing in the form of 3D printing can be embraced to the fullest.

5. 3D printing will become smarter

in-process monitoring formetal 3D printing
In-process monitoring [Image credit: Aconity3D]


“Part of the machine learning process is to introduce a high level of repeatability and enable the user to more easily predict how performance is going to function.”

 Joshua Martin, CEO of Fortify
Making 3D printing more efficient and productive is an ongoing quest within the industry. One trend enabling this is the development of smarter systems, powered by sensors and machine learning.  
 3D printer manufacturers are beginning to fit their systems with sensors to enable in-process monitoring. Sensors and cameras placed inside a 3D printer can be used to measure multiple aspects of a build in real-time, helping to document the build process and ensure requirements are met. 
For example, with powder bed metal 3D printing, cameras can capture the size and temperature of the melt pool, which directly impacts the microstructure, material properties, surface finish and overall part performance.
Integrating machine learning algorithms with such sensors can help to make 3D printing a much smarter process. Sensors can gather valuable data which then can be fed to a machine learning system. 
The system will analyse the data and then provide feedback on how the process can be improved. It can be used to predict the likelihood of defects or build failure, enabling engineers to intervene the process and prevent any defects early on.  
Currently, this concept is still in the early stages, with only a few solutions available on the market. VELO3D, a US-based metal 3D printer manufacturer, has developed a system equipped with sensors which can report back on the status of the build. Similarly, 3D printer manufacturer, EOS, offers the EOSTATE monitoring suite, which can capture quality-relevant data in real-time. 
MIT startup, Inkbit, is pairing its multi-material inkjet 3D printer with in-built scanners and a machine learning system. The monitoring system scans each layer of the object, while the machine learning system uses that information to predict the warping behaviour of materials and automatically correct any errors in real-time. 

“I think that’s the Holy Grail for AM because with in-process control you’re able to almost immediately react on deficiencies within your process.” 

Yves Hagedorn, Managing Director at Aconity3D
In the future, we anticipate that all 3D printers will be integrated with smart technologies like sensors and machine learning. These technologies, combined with 3D printing, will significantly increase process repeatability by reducing the risk of build failures. 
A more intelligent process will ultimately result in easier quality assurance and open the door for greater productivity with 3D printing on the factory floor. 

6. The 3D printing service bureau market will continue to expand

3D-printed polymer parts
[Image credit: Parts on Demand]

Service bureaus are a vital segment of the additive manufacturing industry, helping to further the advancement of the technology. Looking to the future, the service bureau segment is poised for continued growth. 
This prediction is supported by a number of experts interviewed for our State of the 3D Printing Industry Survey Report and respondents giving a positive outlook for the year ahead.  
The growth will largely be driven by the increasing specialisation in certain 3D printing technologies (e.g. metal AM) or industries (e.g. medical). 

“The specialists who can cultivate unmatched expertise in a specific area of AM should see a return on that investment in expertise. On the other end, those companies offering an array of printing technologies to make parts for customers, as well as supporting post-processing and design services for each, should also eventually rise to the top.” 

Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Analysis
Service bureaus will create a lot of opportunities for other industry players to expand into.  

“There will be a lot of mergers and acquisitions over the next few years. For some of the larger manufacturers of 3D printing materials, it will be a natural move to have a service bureau attached to their business. There’s a real opportunity for the other manufacturers to do deals or to buy up service bureaus to promote their particular materials.”

Jonathan Warbrick, Business Development Manager at Graphite Additive Manufacturing 
We’ve already seen this prediction coming true with recent news of Sandvik, a producer of metal powders for AM, acquiring a stake in 3D printing service provider, Beam-IT. 
On the other hand, manufacturing marketplaces like 3D Hubs and Xometry, which offer companies access to a global network of suppliers (for both AM and traditional manufacturing services) on demand, will also see rapid growth. 
Manufacturing is hard pressed to provide a more agile response to rapid changes in customer demand, technology and markets. Operating a Manufacturing-As-A-Service (MaaS) business model, online 3D printing platforms are able to offer agility and quicker turnarounds, filling what seems to be a lucrative market gap. 

“[MaaS is] a win-win because the shops are getting work without having any need to do marketing for it. We’re getting fulfilment and quality parts made. And finally, the customer has a one-stop location to get their parts ordered over many manufacturing technologies.” 

Greg Paulsen, Director of Application Engineering at Xometry

7. Metal 3D printing will continue to mature

metal binder jetting fasteners
[Image credit: Digital Metal]


When it comes to metal 3D printing, we’ve just scratched the surface.

Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Analysis
Metal 3D printing remains one of the fastest growing segments in 3D printing.  However, the many experts we’ve interviewed agree that, although metal 3D printing market has evolved significantly over the last decade, its real potential has yet to be fully realised. 

When you compare the size of the AM industry with the size of the traditional manufacturing industry, we have a lot of room to grow.” 

Zachary Murphree, VP of Technology Partnerships at VELO3D
According to SmarTech’s Scott Dunham, materials will be key to the maturation of metal 3D printing: 
As the industry matures, you would see, of course, much more emphasis on materials, because the utilisation rates of the 3D printers ideally have climbed to support higher volume manufacturing and more regular serial use. 
EOS, a key player in the world of powder bed fusion 3D printing, is heavily focused on developing more materials for metal AM. In May 2019, the company launched four new metal materials, including stainless steel CX, aluminium AlF357 and two grades of titanium. 
Another vital requirement for the adoption of metal 3D printing for production is quality assurance. 

Quality control, i.e. understanding the quality requirements and being able to validate your part is really going to make a difference going forward.

Doug Hedges, President of Sintavia
When a reliable, faster process and a broader material choice come together,  “we’ll see adoption steadily improve throughout all industries, not just the early adopters, like aerospace and medical”, believes Dave Conover, ANSYS’ Chief Technologist of Additive Manufacturing.
Indeed, manufacturers in the automotive, industrial goods and energy sectors are beginning to gain confidence in metal 3D printing as a solution. BMW has recently launched its 3D printing production of metal roof brackets, while  companies like GE and Conflux Technology are developing next-generation heat exchangers with the technology.  
Undoubtedly, there are many opportunities left to be explored with metal 3D printing. To capture those, the industry needs to collaborate more vigorously on developing standards and best practices to ensure repeatable processes and high-quality results.

8. Composite 3D printing will offer a huge market opportunity

Markforged composite 3d printed parts
Composite 3D-printed parts [Image credit: Markforged] 


The composite space is perhaps the newest segment in 3D printing. There are challenges that come with this, but there are also a lot of opportunities.

Joshua Martin, CEO of Fortify
The composite market is one of the key emerging opportunities for 3D printing. Composites are lightweight, strong materials, highly sought-after in industries like aerospace, automotive, oil and gas and industrial goods. 
A SmarTech Analysis report estimates that composite 3D printing will grow into a nearly $10 billion business within the next decade. Within this timeframe, end-use parts are expected to become the largest revenue opportunity.
The ability to streamline and cut the cost of traditional composite manufacturing will be the key driving factor behind this growth. 

Composite manufacturing is currently very labour, resource and capital intensive, which means that it doesn’t really scale to large volumes. Additionally, there are long design cycles because of inadequate software and inefficient simulation.” 

Wiener Mondesir, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Arevo 
The number of companies looking to automate composite manufacturing with 3D printing is growing by leaps and bounds. Currently, Markforged is arguably the biggest player in terms of market presence but other companies like Arevo, Fortify, Impossible Objects and Thermwood are seeing notable growth as well. 
Fortify, for example, recently closed a $10 million series A funding round, while technology company, Arevo, announced the successful application of its composite 3D printing technology to manufacture bike frames. Thermwood’s Large Scale Additive Manufacturing technology is also gaining traction in the production of composite tooling for aerospace applications.
Clearly, the potential for the composites 3D printing segment is huge. However, to continue to evolve, companies will need to work on further improving their technologies and expanding the scope of applications suitable for composite 3D printing.

9. Automation will become a key focus for the industry

AMFG production management platform for additive manufacturing
The integration of AM automation software will provide more streamlined and efficient workflows [Image credit: AMFG]

Automation will be the next step in the evolution of additive manufacturing. Achieved through a combination of hardware and software, as well as robotics, sensors and networks, automation will ensure more streamlined processes as part of an end-to-end digital production cycle. 
On the hardware side, companies are launching new, integrated production units, which incorporate robotics and smart factory concepts to automate various steps of the manufacturing workflow. 
For example, Digital Metal, a manufacturer of binder jetting metal 3D printers, has paired its systems with robots, which handle manual work like removing build boxed and delivering them to a post-processing unit. Jabil is also using robots to automate part handling in secondary AM processes and computer vision to automate inspection processes.
On the software side, workflow automation is gaining traction, as companies realise that achieving serial production with 3D printing will be virtually impossible without an end-to-end management system in place. 
Furthermore, the AM post-processing stage, which has typically been a manual process, is becoming more digitised. 

“Post-processing automation will become one of the major things to watch out for. This is because the real step change will be in the ability to automate post-production.”

Neil van Es, Founder of Parts on Demand 
Several companies, such as Additive Manufacturing Technologies and Post Process Technologies are now overcoming this bottleneck by providing post-processing solutions that speed up the process of support removal and surface finishing – through automated post-processing machines. 
Ultimately, adding automation to a 3D printing equation will enable manufacturers to transform 3D printing to a continuous process that will work much better in a volume production setting.

10. The additive manufacturing landscape will become more competitive

“In the next couple of years we will see a lot more competitive chaos resulting from a fairly crowded field.” 

Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Analysis 
With new players entering the industry, there is an increasing level of competition within the AM market.  A growing number of startups, as well established companies outside of AM, are entering the 3D printing arena looking to capitalise on the industry’s growth.  
AMFG’s Additive Manufacturing Industry Landscape 2019 has identified more than 80 3D printer manufacturers, the majority of which appeared in the last five to ten years.

The Number of Polymer and Metal 3D Printer Manufacturers Compared
[Image credit: AMFG]

There’s a huge potential for newcomers to leapfrog more established players. 
As Avi Reichental, Founder of advisory firm, XponentialWorks, points out, “[established companies] have a rather unfair disadvantage vis-a-vis new players because they have lots of legacy issues to deal with. Since they’re operating within certain technologies, they’re more likely to implement and introduce linear, incremental improvements. In contrast, a completely new company can solve a similar problem without any of the legacy technology and organisational issues.” 
As competition heats up, the industry players will have to refocus and reinvent to survive. We’ve already seen some moves in this direction. For example, Ultimaker has rebranded recently to strengthen its brand as a professional, B2B 3D printing business. 3D Hubs, once a community-based 3D printing marketplace, has recently shifted its focus to the B2B industrial space.

“We live in a period in which you either innovate or evaporate. In other words, you either disrupt or you will be disrupted.”

Avi Reichental 
Clearly, the landscape is becoming more competitive than ever. That said, competition can be a positive sign, pointing to the growth of the industry. Competition can help to push the industry forward, as it forces companies to focus on innovation and development. 
However, increasing competition also means that it’s a crucial time for companies to remain innovative to maintain their place in the market.  

Trends signal a bright future for AM 

“I think the additive manufacturing industry will deliver on its promise.”

 Simon Fried, Co-Founder of Nano Dimension
The trends discussed above reflect one key idea: 3D printing is reaching maturity.  The advancements in the hardware, software, materials and applications suggest that 3D printing will eventually become yet another manufacturing technology. 
Naturally, the adoption rate of 3D printing will increase over time, with some segments like dental almost entirely switching to 3D printing. The growing awareness of 3D printing and its benefits will facilitate this growth.

“I really do think you will see the impact of digital manufacturing as a solution for full-scale manufacturing.”

Philip DeSimone, Co-Founder and VP of Business Development at Carbon 
In the meantime, the competitive 3D printing landscape will require companies to differentiate themselves from competitors by leveraging their unique expertise and developing a clear value proposition. 
Considering the recent progress of the technology and these expert predictions, 3D printing is clearly headed for a bright future of digital, smart manufacturing.
More Expert Roundups:
10 of the Biggest Challenges in Scaling Additive Manufacturing for Production [Expert Roundup]
Expert Roundup: 20 Experts Share Their 3D Printing Predictions for 2020


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