5 Exciting Trends In 3D Printing Software 
Software has long been a bottleneck in the evolution of 3D printing. The industry has been focusing more on advancements in hardware and materials, while software innovation has lagged behind.
However, the existing gap is being closed, as more companies are now developing the next generation of software tools which will drive AM forward into industrialisation.
Below, we’re looking at some of the key developments and trends shaping the 3D printing software market.
1. The quest for software interoperability
The additive manufacturing industry is moving towards a simpler and faster design preparation workflow. The key to achieving this will be the introduction of greater software integration.
In a typical design process, an engineer would create a solid model in a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) system. Then he would need to convert it into a triangulated model to perform printability checks, orient the part on the build tray, optimise the structure to reduce weight, add supports and run simulation analyses. For many of these steps, designers and engineers will use different programmes and multiple file formats.
This vast array of design preparation tools needed to get a model ready for printing adds a layer of complexity to the AM workflow. Converting and transferring design data to different design environments can often lead to costly mistakes and delays. And this is not even mentioning significant licence fees companies would pay to use multiple software packages.
One way to overcome this challenge is the introduction of greater software interoperability.
In the context of the AM design process, interoperability can help to reduce the number of tools, steps and effort required to design a model for printing. One way to achieve this is to allow different software tools to exchange and make use of design data without cumbersome data conversions.
Today we see more functions, traditionally found in AM-specific software, migrating to CAD software, developed by larger software companies. The integration of AM design function into popular CAD can be achieved in multiple ways, including software integrations, acquisitions or the development of capabilities internally.
One of the biggest examples includes the acquisition of AM design software company, Netfabb, by Autodesk in 2015. This move allowed Autodesk to connect Netfabb with its Fusion 360 design and engineering tool, creating a much simpler 3D printing design environment for its users.
In a more recent example, Hexagon AB, a Sweden-based global technology company, has acquired AMendate, a German provider of topology optimisation software for AM. AMendate will be added to the MSC Software arm of Hexagon, which provides Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) simulation software and services.
Other companies like Altair, Dassault Systems and PTC, have been developing AM design capabilities within the scope of their CAD solutions as well.
The trend of integrating and streamlining AM design process steps is set to continue to grow stronger, although the change won’t happen overnight. That said, achieving this milestone will remove the barriers to faster design iterations, ultimately enabling 3D printing users to streamline complicated modelling tasks.
2. Moves to replace STL?
Creating interoperable workflow would be nearly impossible without reconsidering the use of STL, the most common 3D printing file format.
The STL file format was invented in the mid-1980s to enable CAD software to transmit files to print 3D objects. Using STL, a design in CAD is exported as an STL file, which describes a three-dimensional object as a series of linked triangles (polygons).
Despite a lot of advancements happening in the industry, the STL format has remained largely unchanged for over 30 years. As the 3D printing industry continues to develop and evolve, the limitations of the STL format has become more readily apparent, especially when using 3D printing to design complex production parts.
Here are just some of the challenges of using STL files:
- Accurately defining complex or large geometric shapes and structures can be difficult and involves creating files that can become impractically large (e.g. several gigabytes). These files take a long time to send to a 3D printer and in some cases can be so large that a 3D printer won’t be able to accept the entire file.
- The format doesn’t specify the information about colour, texture or material.
- The STL format can’t embed any other data beyond the design, including information related to copyright and file security.
- Modifying the file is difficult. The file format can’t distinguish between minor and major changes so any change means the entire workflow must start over, which can add hours to the design process.
One of the trends that has been taking shape over the last few years is the development of solutions to eliminate the need for STL files. One of them is the development of more efficient file formats.
For example, the 3MF Consortium, initially formed in 2015, aims to establish a new universal and open-source 3D file format, called 3MF, that is free of the issues besetting STL.
In the last two years, there have been a number of updates to 3MF, including four extensions for Materials and Properties, Production, Beam Lattice and Slice. Volumetric and Laser Tool Path extensions are next on the list and currently in development.
Furthermore, 3MF is packed with several built-in features unavailable in STL like complex shape data with low file sizes, one or multiple textures and multiple colour data.
Despite its obvious benefits, the 3MF file format is being rather slowly adopted within the industry. Ironically, the AM industry that is so closely associated with innovation has been accustomed to working with STL and is reluctant to switch to more efficient formats.
Although STL is not expected to disappear any time soon, AM users will ultimately have to reconsider their approach to preparing a design for 3D printing. Using new file formats could be one of the means to support modern design preparation needs.
3. A new focus on workflow software
Workflow management software is experiencing tremendous growth within the 3D printing software market. One of the biggest drivers for this growth is the need for greater automation and scalability of the AM production workflow.
A graph from a recent report by IDtechEx shows that workflow management software revenues will surge in the next decade, promising a bright future for the sector.
As companies are beginning to integrate AM into their operations, they are faced with manual and inefficient workflow practices. For example, many AM operators and technicians still have to manually manage orders, check on build statuses and spend a lot of time identifying parts after they are printed. This creates a lot of operational bottlenecks, which make scaling and effectively managing AM production a challenging task.
There are many advancements being made to overcome workflow inefficiencies, with workflow automation software being one of the key solutions.
Essentially, workflow software platforms, like AMFG, help to establish an ecosystem that links different stages of the AM workflow, like order management, production scheduling, build status monitoring and post-processing checks. The goal is to make production planning and control a streamlined and digitalised process.
As a result, companies, whether it’s service bureaus or internal AM shops, can have a tool that enables them to manage the AM workflow from end to end, while being able to integrate AM into a wider digital infrastructure.
4. The growing role of AM simulation software
Simulation software will play an ever-larger role as 3D printing transforms into a production-capable technology. Simulation is typically used at the design stage to digitally reproduce how a material would behave during the printing process, with the aim of minimising print failures before a design is sent to print.
Despite its promise, simulating 3D printing processes is challenging due to a large amount of variables that need to be factored in during the simulation process.
‘All simulation software today has some level of assumptions built into it that limit the accuracy it can deliver. That’s probably the biggest drawback right now: they can’t be as accurate as you’d like them to be,’ says ANSYS’ Chief Technologist, Dave Conover, speaking in a recent interview with AMFG.
However, simulation technology is evolving rapidly, with software vendors continuing to refine their offerings. An engineering software company, ANSYS, is one example. Since the beginning of 2019, the company has released three major updates, which feature many new functionalities.
One update that stands out is ANSYS Additive Prep. This tool is a part of the ANSYS Additive Suite and ANSYS Additive Print software packages.
Among its features is the ability to produce heat maps that help engineers predict how AM build orientations impact support structures, build times, distortions and overall print performance.
In the latest R3 release, ANSYS Additive Prep has also been enhanced with a new build processor which allows users to export a build file directly to an AM machine, thus bypassing the need to use an STL file.
Furthermore, MSC Software has released the next generation of its Simufact solution for the simulation of metal 3D printing processes.
The update is heavily focused on automation: it can compensate final part distortion and optimise support structures automatically, while identifying overheated or not sufficiently heated zones and predict issues like cracks, shrink lines and recoater contact before they occur.
Ongoing developments in this field indicate that the need for sophisticated simulation solutions for AM is growing. The industry wants to know how to make 3D-printed products with reliable and repeatable results, and this is where simulation can play a key role.
Excitingly, advancements in AM simulations go hand in hand with other 3D printing software trends, including an increased focus on interoperability, automation and simplified usability.
5. Software is becoming smarter
Combining 3D printing software with Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the next big trend within the industry. This combination can enhance 3D printing design, production and workflow processes.
On the design front, pairing AI with design software results in generative design tools that enable engineers to explore unexpected design options. The process involves defining a design problem by inputting basic parameters such as height, weight a part must support, strength and material options. Using AI and cloud computing, generative design software comes up with a myriad of design options, which meet the specified parameters.
Generative design software could solve engineering challenges with design solutions that the human mind could never conceive on its own.
3D printing is one of the key technologies driving the progress of generative design software, as often it’s the only way to bring AI-generated designs to life.
In addition to smarter designs, software is also evolving to make the production with 3D printing more repeatable.
For example, Markforged has recently launched AI-powered software, Blacksmith, which allows its 3D printers to adjust programming and parameters to ensure optimal print results. Machine learning algorithms powering Blacksmith enable the software to learn from previous part production so parts become more accurate and precise each time.
To achieve this, the intelligent software analyses a design, compares it to scanned part data captured from inspection equipment and dynamically adapts the end-to-end process to ultimately produce parts that perfectly meet an intended CAD file.
Finally, 3D printing workflow is also becoming smarter with the introduction of AI-powered software.
3D printing workflows are very data-heavy, meaning that there is a lot of information about order statuses, machine and materials data, that can (and should be) not only monitored and collected, but also analysed and acted upon. And this is where AI can help.
Machine analytics capabilities can enable the software to analyse the collected data and suggest where improvements to the production operations could be made. Ultimately, it will provide greater visibility into where key bottlenecks are and how to optimise the process to make the most out of AM.
Software: the key to industrialising 3D printing
Among the three key pillars of 3D printing — hardware, materials and software — the latter has been least advanced. However, things are changing now, as companies are realising that digital technologies like 3D printing require digital solutions to support their growth and evolution.
Leading software providers and start-ups alike are now seeking to develop software tools to advance AM. A lot of effort is put into enabling repeatable printing results through simulation software. At the same time, there is a lot of activity around overcoming bottlenecks in the design preparation and process management workflows.
Finally, the convergence between 3D printing and AI is shaping new possibilities for 3D printing design and production.
Putting all these developments together, software is truly becoming the piece to the puzzle of making 3D printing one of the key production technologies of today and tomorrow.