The Future of 3D Printing: 12 Key Takeaways from AMFG’s AM Landscape Digital Conference 2020 (Part 2)
18 May 2020
In April, AMFG brought together 3D printing professionals and experts in our first Additive Manufacturing Landscape Digital Conference 2020, where we shared perspectives and insights into the current state of the industry.
This is Part 2 of the article exploring key learnings from the AM Landscape conference. You can read Part 1 here.
7. The combination of AM and digitisation will encourage industries to rethink their approach to supply chains
‘Traditional supply chains have failed, and it’s made battling the pandemic much harder,’ said Lee-Bath Nelson, Co-Founder and VP Business at LEO Lane in her presentation.
One thing companies can do to adapt to the effects of the pandemic is to digitise their supply chains as much as possible.
A traditional supply chain has advanced distribution chains in place, with goods sent from one place to another, often across borders, and then delivered to the end location.
With borders closed and traditional means of transportation limited as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, this has created issues with the traditional supply of critical goods.
Nelson argues that digitising supply chains can help to deal with such issues by enabling local, more agile production with 3D printing and digital inventory.
The move towards supply chain digitisation is not without its challenges, however. By its very nature, an item in a digital inventory hasn’t yet been produced, which means that you must be able to ensure production repeatability, even if the part is produced in different locations or at different times.
Another challenge Nelson cited is IP protection. With digital inventory, the potential risk of IP infringement risk can be higher.
‘If someone steals a [physical part] from you, you’ve lost the value of that one item. It’s not a good thing but it’s very specific and it’s capped,’ explained Nelson, ‘but if someone steals an item from your digital inventory, which is not secured, they basically have a blueprint for producing this part.’
One way to mitigate this risk is through the use of IP protection software. Today specialised software exists that enables manufacturers to secure their digital files and even to specify how many times these files can be accessed and who has access to them.
In this way, security software has an important role to play in enabling the digitisation of supply chains with the help of 3D printing.
8. Insights into the adoption rates of industrial 3D printing
Ultimaker is perhaps one of the most recognised desktop 3D printer brands in the world.
During the conference, Paul Heiden, SVP Product Management at Ultimaker, joined us to discuss the state of Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D printing and share his insights into the adoption rates of 3D printing.
FFF remains one of the most popular 3D printing technologies for plastics and is increasingly being used for production applications.
This evolution has mainly been spurred by the need for accessible and easy-to-use 3D printers, leading to the introduction of professional desktop systems.
Ultimaker has also recently released its Sentiment Index, a survey of 3D printing users around the world, that covers the level of awareness of the technology and the key barriers to adoption.
The biggest barrier to 3D printing adoption, according to Heiden, is the lack of awareness about the technology at the company level. The less familiar stakeholders are with 3D printing, the less likely they are to invest in the technology.
Heiden also highlighted the use of 3D printing materials. The vast majority of 3D printing users mainly work with plastics. However, Ultimaker has found that more professional materials, like TPU, polypropylene and nylon, are entering the scene.
Clearly, the 3D printing industry is becoming more industrial, through the use of technical materials and technology optimised for industrial applications.
Although Heiden stated that the most popular use of 3D printing is still in the realm of prototyping, the number of advanced users exploring the production of tooling as well as end-use parts, is rising rapidly.
9. Post-processing solutions continue to evolve, with a focus on automation
How can automated post-processing unlock the potential of additive manufacturing? That’s the question Joseph Crabtree, CEO of Additive Manufacturing Technologies, aimed to tackle in his session.
According to Crabtree, industrialised additive manufacturing at scale will be enabled by ‘a fully automated end-to-end post-processing system that can bolt on to any existing 3D printing system’.
Post-processing is currently a bottleneck due to the manual processes involved, including support removal, smoothing, colouring and inspection.
Although there is currently no one-size-fits-all solution, a number of companies, including AMT, are developing automated post-processing systems targeting different AM technologies.
Post-processing automation has many positive implications for the 3D printing workflow: it helps to speed up the 3D printing process and ensure repeatability.
Ultimately, having the right post-processing infrastructure in place opens the door to a higher degree of repeatability and productivity with AM. That’s why automating post-processing must be a priority for those adopting 3D printing for production or looking to scale up the use of the technology in the future.
10. What the COVID-19 pandemic tells us about 3D printing
Almost all of the speakers at the conference highlighted the role of 3D printing in supporting the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eric Pallarés, Co-Founder & CTO at BCN3D, dived even further into the topic, speaking about the things the pandemic revealed about the AM technology.
As many hospitals struggle to get critical medical supplies, 3D printing has emerged as a solution that enables a quick response to certain supply chain shortages.
The agility offered by 3D printing can be useful not only during this pandemic but also in other cases where disruption to business requires a quick response. Pallarés believes that agility can be the most valuable asset for businesses going forward.
Furthermore, the increased use of 3D printing for medical supplies has revealed the acute need for technical materials.
3D printing materials for medical applications must be developed for medical environments, meaning that they must withstand high temperatures and be biocompatible. While such materials do exist on the market, their variety is much lower than that of more common thermoplastics.
Another lesson we are learning is that the industry desperately needs regulations and standards for 3D printing. When people’s safety depends on 3D-printed products, the ability to create consistent, repeatable and traceable parts is paramount.
11. For high-volume 3D printing scenarios, polymer powder-bed fusion is the best choice
While we’ve covered the shift towards production with 3D printing, not every 3D printing technology is actually suitable for manufacturing at scale.
Among all of the polymer 3D printing methods, powder bed fusion, which involves the application of heat to powdered material, currently shows the greatest promise for high-volume 3D printing.
This was explored in depth by Gregory Paulsen, Director Of Application Engineering at Xometry, as he compared the key polymer 3D printing processes.
At Xometry, an online platform for manufacturing, ‘we’re usually building 30 to 300 parts per build so from a throughput and high diversity standpoint these powder bed fusion technologies are very good,’ explained Paulsen.
The two key technologies in this group are Selective Laser Sintering and Multi Jet Fusion. Both share similar benefits, like the ability to print without support structures, material versatility and the ability to scale.
SLS, in particular, has been used for decades and isone of the first polymer AM technologies used for end-part production.
At the same time, MJF, developed by HP, is growing as a competing technology. For example, the use of MJF machines is expanding because they’re more factory-friendly, according to Paulsen.
Ultimately, the developments in both SLS and MJF drive 3D printing’s transition into a volume manufacturing solution. Both technologies are set to continue to prove their viability for more applications as the industry moves forward.
12. Digital manufacturing is moving towards the mainstream
In the final session of the conference, Avi Reichental, Founder of XponentialWorks and former CEO of 3D Systems, talked about the current state of digital manufacturing and the future of 3D printing.
Avi Reichental, who has spent more than 15 years in the 3D printing industry, noted the rapid evolution of the industry in recent months, stating: ‘more [has] happened in the last 25 months than in the past 25 years.’
The pace of innovation within the 3D printing industry has accelerated, as the number of new players entering the market continues to grow.
One area Reichental dived into is the evolution of 3D printing speeds.
The speed of 3D printing is tightly linked to the ability to scale the process and achieve greater productivity.
Many companies are currently working on increasing 3D printing speed. One such company spotlighted by Reichental is Nexa3D, a company that develops resin-based 3D printers. The company has developed its own approach to photocuring, which reportedly increases printing speed by the factor of 6.
Similar developments are taking place in other technologies as well. EOS, for example, is developing a LaserProFusion technology that will make SLS 3D printing 10 times faster.
Also talking about the COVID-19 outbreak, Reichental agreed that the uncertainty stemming from the pandemic has affected the AM industry just as any other industry. However, despite the uncertainty, COVID-19 also serves as the catalyst for bringing AM into the mainstream.
Although traditional supply chains are facing disruption, it’s encouraging to see 3D printing stepping up to take its place as a highly flexible, on-demand manufacturing solution.
‘The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities,’ said Reichental. For the 3D printing industry, this statement couldn’t be more true.
Watch the full speaker sessions on YouTube