Not long ago, 3D printing was a science fiction trope, appearing in many sci-fi classics such as Star Trek (1987) and The Fifth Element (1997). It is not that these films came up with a completely new concept since the world’s first 3D printer was invented in 1983 by Chuck Hill. But what they did offer was a glimpse into the potential uses of the technology. Star Trek’s Replicator synthesized meals on-demand, while The Fifth Element’s bioprinter created Leeloo.
Now, some 3D printing sci-fi fantasy predictions have become a reality, some have been exceeded, and some are still up for speculation on future possibilities. The actualization of the figments of the imagination of the previous decades is only picking up pace, and never has it been more evident than with The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is hotly debated, with some welcoming it because they see the benefits they can reap from it, while others are raising concerns about its effect on privacy and equality. But one thing is certain, 3D printing technologies are an integral part of the digital transformation of industry.
How does 3D printing work?
3D printing is a manufacturing process in which a solid three-dimensional object is constructed from a CAD model or a digital 3D model. Instead of using traditional molding or subtractive methods, the printing technology fabricates objects by adding layers on top of one another. This layered approach is the reason why the technology is also known as additive manufacturing (AM).
There are many forms of additive manufacturing, depending largely on the 3D printing materials used.
According to Statista, the most commonly used AM technologies in 2020 were the fused deposition modeling technology or FDM printing, followed by selective laser sintering, which is referred to as SLS printing, and stereolithography or SLA printing. What’s common about the top three technologies is that they use plastic as their working 3D printing material.
For metal 3D printing, the top ten printing technologies in 2020 included direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and electron beam melting (EBM). While plastics and metals are the most commonly used materials, the portfolio is constantly evolving to include new plastics as well as glass, ceramics, wood, paper, graphene, and living cells.
The future of 3D printing
Although it was initially used mainly for rapid prototyping, 3D printing technologies are moving beyond this to small series production, tooling, spare parts production, and more recently, industrial production at scale. This shift was partly supported by innovation in additive manufacturing technologies enabled by patents on additive manufacturing technologies entering the public domain.
This knowledge led to a surge in new startups entering the AM scene at all value chain points. Besides startups, McKinsey states that the AM market development is also being accelerated by large companies that have entered the market and various stakeholders including large OEMs, governments, and universities that are investing in R&D.
The innovations, investments, and adoption of additive manufacturing technologies are driving the growth of the market. Research and Markets report that this market is expected to grow to US$ 36.61 billion by 2027 from US$ 8.44 billion in 2018, displaying a CAGR of 17.7%.
AMFG’s 2020 Additive Manufacturing Landscape highlights that the additive manufacturing industry is maturing at a fast rate and it is becoming increasingly diverse. An important factor in the industry’s advancement is industry collaboration and partnerships.
As new materials suppliers, hardware manufacturers, and software vendors are entering the market, companies can experience hardship in identifying the right match for collaboration as well as identifying new emerging opportunities, technologies, and business models. This is Valuer’s area of specialization. Innovation Themes and Innovation Radar are data-driven tools that streamline the process of innovation scouting.
Industry and 3D printing technologies
3D printing (or Additive Manufacturing) is already being used in many industries. The maturity of the technology differs from industry to industry, but there’s a clear movement towards utilizing 3D printing technologies. Some of the industries where 3D printing technologies have a major impact are:
3D printing may have come under the radar for the uninitiated in 2020 when the majority of the global population felt the disruption to the conventional manufacturing methods.
Large and small 3D printing companies, engineers, designers, and enthusiasts rose to the occasion when the Covid-19 pandemic hit to help the medical field with on-demand solutions. The solutions ranged from personal protection equipment to medical equipment and isolation wards.
However, this technology is not new to the healthcare industry. It started with 3D printing medical equipment like external prosthetics, then implants, and after significant technological advancements, we are now witnessing ongoing work with living cells and biomaterials to create organ-like structures.
As one of the fastest-growing adopters of AM technologies, the medical and dental industries have already felt the positive impact of customization and faster speed-to-market of cost-effective solutions.
The aerospace industry is among the earliest to adopt 3D printing technology. It is important to note that this industry also contributes heavily to R&D efforts, which in turn, enables a broader application of AM.
Besides functional prototypes, 3D printing in the aerospace industry is used to produce lightweight components and custom tooling equipment due to the nature of 3D printing materials.
One of the most notable advantages of 3D printing in the aerospace industry is manufacturing parts that will reduce the weight of an aircraft, thus reducing its CO2 emissions, fuel consumption, and payload.
Additionally, this industry requires the production of highly complex parts in low volumes, and 3D printing is perfectly suited to deliver on this in a cost-effective manner. 3D printing also allows for creativity in the development of complex geometries without the need for expensive tooling equipment.
Within the automotive industry, prototyping is currently the major application of AM. Prototyping using 3D printers eliminates the need for tooling and, thus, accelerates product development cycles and reduces testing and validation costs.
Another important area where 3D printing technologies can improve the manufacturing process is spare parts production. Traditionally, automotive companies have to store spare parts at high inventory costs. These costs can be reduced by creating parts on-demand.
On-demand production simplifies the supply chain and leads to improved delivery times. Some players in this field have also started to apply AM to produce tooling internally in order to reduce production costs and cut lead times from weeks to a few days.
Recently, automotive companies have started exploring the application of additive manufacturing technology for end-part production. Even though the technology is still not suitable for high production volumes, there have been advancements in the speed and size of industrial printers. The speed and size, along with the increasing availability of materials, allow AM to be used for medium-sized production runs.
The field of consumer goods shares many of the benefits of implementing AM technology with the abovementioned industries. However, a significant focus is put on the use of 3D printing for mass customization.
As consumers’ needs shift rapidly, the consumer goods industry faces a challenge to meet these customer needs with innovative products manufactured efficiently and cost-effectively. This is where AM comes into play.
As Jörg Bromberger and Richard Kelly put it in a 2017 McKinsey article on AM: “The ability to make completely customizable products will shift the traditional manufacturing mindset of “What is feasible?” to one of “What is possible?” Design capabilities will therefore become an even more important strategic asset.”
Emerging business models
Richard A. D’Aveni from Harvard Business Review identifies six newly emerged business models as a result of the progress made in the different types of 3D printing technology.
(1) mass customization
(2) mass variety
(3) mass segmentation
(4) mass modularization
(5) mass complexity
(6) mass standardization.
These business models rely on AM’s greater product variation relative to traditional manufacturing, its efficiency improvements, and its capabilities in producing more complex products.
[Related Article - 5 Ways Sustainability is Driving Innovation & Transforming Industries]
Nevertheless, in times like these, where companies are increasingly taking responsibility for tackling climate change, simply adopting one of these business models is not enough. Companies need to take a holistic approach, taking into account the impact their operations have on the environment.
3D printing and environmental sustainability
For companies that have embedded environmental sustainability in their business, although not perfect, some 3D printing technologies offer significant benefits. In terms of reducing waste, 3D printing differs from traditional manufacturing in that it only uses the material needed to produce the object.
Nevertheless, not all 3D printing technologies are created equal. Depending on the 3D printing material used and the processes involved, some methods are more sustainable than others.
Another key aspect is that it is a design-efficient technology. Most evident in the aerospace and automotive industries, where 3D printing can significantly reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by simply reducing the weight of some of the system’s components.
CO2 emissions reduction is achieved not only through weight optimization but also through distributed manufacturing. This supply model is based on decentralized manufacturing facilities located closer to the product end-user. The proximity of manufacturer and end-user enables a reduction in emissions from transportation.
In the area of recycling, some 3D printing technologies use a wide variety of sustainable and recyclable materials. For example, some technologies utilize plastic waste converted into plastic filaments as raw material, while others use spent coffee grounds, algae, and cellulose. Even metal materials and powders can be recycled in closed-loop AM processes.
Energy-wise, AM cannot be categorized as a strictly green technology. At least not yet. MIT Professor Timothy Gutowski argues that:
“most 3D printing processes are something like seven orders of magnitude more energy-intensive than high-volume conventional manufacturing processes such as machining, casting, and injection molding.”
However, there are dissenting opinions. Some studies show that in some use-cases when considering different factors, like material waste, the possibility of material recycling, and post-processing, 3D printing can be more energy-efficient than conventional manufacturing processes.
3D printing the future of industry - innovation and opportunity
All things considered, 3D printing cannot be dismissed as just a trend. It is a field that is strengthened by collaboration and innovation in technology, business models, strategies, and sustainability efforts. 3D printing is unique in that not only can it improve and streamline manufacturing processes, it can also contribute to making many resource-wasteful and emission-heavy industries more sustainable.
But it is not always as easy as it sounds. Players in the AM industry and players in other industries that can benefit from utilizing 3D printing technologies need to be aware of the conditions and trends in their markets. They need to identify opportunities and develop strategies to adjust to the disruption happening across markets.
The potential of AM can be utilized only if companies understand and explore its value across many points in the value chain. At Valuer, we strongly believe that companies who understand and harness innovation can remain prosperous while shaping a better future for all of their stakeholders.
Valuer aligns sustainability with progress. We assist companies in achieving business growth objectives and innovation goals by providing insights about technologies, startups, and trends. Valuer empowers companies to make informed decisions about innovation, investments, and collaborations.
We do all this through our AI-driven platform, where we use an AI algorithm to comb over a vast database of over 650,000 startups and businesses to deliver you the tailor-made insights you and your business need to navigate disruptive markets. The Valuer platform will help generate the solutions you need and provide the insight into the solutions you didn't know you needed.