5 Trends Shaping The Future of Additive Manufacturing [2021]

18 February 2021
additive manufacturing trends 2021

In 2020, the AM industry both went through a rough patch and gained a renewed focus in production. The continued evolution of AM made us wonder what 2021 has in store for the industry. 

So here are our five key trends that will define the future advancements of AM.

1. Additive software innovation will play catch-up


Software has long been a bottleneck in the evolution of 3D printing. There has been a gap between hardware capability and software enablement, which became only more apparent as 3D printing started to mature as a production method. 

Software links every crucial step in the AM workflow, from ordering, part design, build preparation, production planning and monitoring, and delivery. But until recently software solutions haven’t been optimised to unique aspects of 3D printing. 

As a result, many processes were manual or inefficient, because companies used the technologies poorly equipped for AM.

Over the last few years, the industry has been working towards closing the existing gap but there is still room for improvement.  

In 2021, the progress will continue, with software companies large and small focusing on software solutions to meet the requirements of additive technologies. This evolution will fuel the next generation of software tools which will drive AM forward into industrialisation. 

2. Increased focus on machine connectivity

additive manufacturing system monitoring through MES

One of the biggest AM trends we expect to progress in 2021 is making AM solutions (both software and hardware) easier to integrate and connect with the production floor. 

Closed, or proprietary, AM systems have long dominated the AM hardware market. Such systems typically work with materials and software provided or approved by the machine OEM and are not easily integrated with third-party solutions. 

While the closed systems approach may be great for ensuring process reliability, it’s often viewed as limiting the collaboration and connectivity. 

As companies are ramping up their AM operations, they will require the ability to seamlessly connect their machines and software to their production environments. Using siloed solutions for the technology which thrives on connectivity is a road to nowhere for additive manufacturing.

Importantly, we witness that hardware manufacturers increasingly shift their focus to systems, which are open for integration with the factory floor. 

This trend has already been strong in 2020: for example, we recently announced the collaboration with HP, which enables HP AM systems to be integrated with our additive MES software. 

Another example supporting the trend comes from the 3D printing industry’s mainstay, Stratasys. In December, the company announced the expansion of the connectivity capabilities for its historically closed machines. 

This means that it will now be easier to connect Stratasys’ systems with third-party software, giving users the power to integrate and manage their additive production using software applications of their choice. 

System connectivity is no longer an option, but a necessity, for AM facilities. It’s all the more encouraging to see the AM industry players begin to recognise and address this need.  

More on this: How Can You Leverage 3D printer Monitoring To Scale Additive Manufacturing?

3. The continued convergence of AM and AI


Artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming integral parts of AM growth. Almost all parts of the AM value chain can benefit from AI, from material development, machine set up, part design and workflow automation. 

That’s why we expect that in 2021 we’ll see greater integration between AI and the AM technology. 

In the hardware space, AI will be paired with AM systems to enable greater process control and repeatability. For example, Inkbit is now developing an AI-based vision system integrated into a polymer system. This system will be able to scan each of the 3D printing layers and predict material behaviour during the print process. 

Already widely recognised as a major digital innovation in AM, generative design also has the potential to greatly benefit from AI and machine learning. 

To date, generative design has mostly been used to optimise load paths where strength and stiffness dominate. It can also be used in thermal or vibration optimisation scenarios.

AI and machine learning will take generative design to the next level, opening the door for new designs to be fully adapted to the AM process. 

While we may be a few years away from the fully developed ability to adapt designs to the process automatically, we expect key advancements to take place this year, getting us closer to this goal. 

Another great opportunity to put AI to work within the AM industry is by integrating it with manufacturing execution systems. At AMFG, for example, artificial intelligence powers our additive MES software to automate manual tasks such as data collection. 

In future, machine analytics capabilities can be applied 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. 

Ultimately, the need for smarter, more autonomous AM suggests that AI capabilities within AM hardware and software are only set to advance. 

4. AM will drive distributed manufacturing

serial additive production

As organisations look to future-proof their supply chains, many of them are opening up to new supply chain models and technologies that will allow them to lower costs or switch more flexibly among the products they manufacture. 

This need for greater flexibility and agility will give rise to a distributed, localised manufacturing, driven by additive manufacturing. 

AM can dramatically reduce the number of steps required to make complex metal or polymer shapes, accelerate lead times and facilitate the shift to digital inventories. These benefits make it particularly attractive for the distributed model of manufacturing. 

We believe that 2021 will mark the year when more companies begin to seriously investigate distributed manufacturing with AM. This trend is supported by a recent survey by HP, stating that 59 per cent of companies are currently evaluating hybrid models and 52 per cent are looking into localised digital manufacturing. 

5. The next wave of growth in additive MES


The adoption of digital manufacturing technologies like AM will ultimately require a software foundation, which can support the growth and scalability of AM across the organisation. 

That’s why we’re seeing an increased interest in Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) for additive manufacturing. MES software has been designed to make the AM workflow more easily manageable, by automating key processes like order management, production scheduling and monitoring. 

AMFG additive MES overview
Advanced additive MES helps to organises teams, data and processes

MES projects have a proven track record of benefits and are now viewed as a strategic level of importance alongside AM adoption. 

To get to this level, however, required a years-long evolution of additive MES software, which has had to be developed to meet the unique needs of AM. 

Although today’s MES capabilities are wide-reaching, there are still a lot of new exciting developments on the horizon. Tighter convergence with machine learning, advanced connectivity with hardware, greater interoperability – all of this is already in the works today, getting ready to fuel the next wave of growth in AM in 2021 and beyond.

Are you prepared to ride the wave of AM trends?

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