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What’s the Future for 3D Printing in Manufacturing?

Posted By Paul Tate, October 13, 2015 at 6:11 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

3d_printing.jpg“Within 10 years, every commercial airplane will have 3D printed parts on it,” predicts Stratasys CEO Joe Allison in the foreword to a new report designed to track the potential impact of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM) technology, on the manufacturing industry in the years ahead.

Though initially introduced to provide rapid and effective prototyping, Allison believes the technology will have a transformational impact on final product production too over the next few years. “Using 3D printing to manufacture products may just be emerging as a competitive advantage today, but companies that don’t initiate investment soon will quickly be at a considerable disadvantage”.

Called “3D Printing’s Imminent Impact on Manufacturing”, the report captures the views of 700 manufacturing industry executives, engineers, designers and project managers already using, or considering investments in, 3D printing technologies - 40% of them at companies with over $50 million in revenues last year.

Among the report's findings, respondents clearly identified the key benefits of AM as focusing on more complex design capabilities (79%) and reducing lead times for parts (76%), followed by improvements in manufacturing efficiency (42%).

3d_printing_challenges.pngBut the report also notes that there are still a number of significant challenges ahead, most importantly the costs of current AM equipment and the limited availability of materials. High manufacturing costs are also seen as a barrier by 38% of respondents today, and 40% in the future.

From a materials perspective, the use of metals is by far the most desired option with 84% of respondents citing metals as the material they would most like to see developed for the future across all industries. Additive metal use is expected to nearly double over the next three years.

Metal is followed by rubber-like materials and high temperature plastics in the report, although carbon fiber was also cited by many aerospace and automotive respondents, and bio-based polymers by medical companies.

To prepare themselves for a more AM-friendly future, many companies are also now actively investing in the new skills and knowledge they will need to use 3D printing technology to transition from traditional manufacturing approaches in the years ahead. 40% of respondents say they are already training designers and engineers in how to use AM technology; 34% are funding research or investing in the development of AM systems; 19% are actively recruiting experienced AM employees; and 40% are partnering with AM service providers. “It’s clear companies have been focusing on shoring up gaps in internal expertise,” notes the report.

3d_printing_applications.pngPerhaps the most interesting result, however, is in the changing application of AM technology towards the creation of end-user products and parts. By 2018 the report predicts that there will be a significant shift from using 3D printing for purely conceptual models (down by 1%), towards the increased production of manufacturing tools (up 18%), trial production runs (up 41%), and final end user parts (up by 38%), again dominated by the aerospace and auto sectors.

“This is not surprising,” adds the report, “because these industries were among the first to explore end-use part production and, therefore, are further along in validating designs and materials to fit application needs.”

Stratatsys CEO Allison concludes that, “Growth over the next three years will largely come in end-use production, with an emphasis in metals. These two trends combine to drive the third trend: a demand for expertise and know-how.” 

But he also notes the AM industry is still suffering from the perception that 3D printing is simply regarded as a “technology solution”.  He believes that it’s only when this perception changes to viewing AM’s potential as a business solution that the technology will gain significant traction in manufacturing. “Technology is a tool that enables innovation,” he adds, “not defines it.”

How far are you along the road to adopting AM technologies to create end user products? What do you see as the greatest challenges for 3D printing in manufacturing in the years ahead? 

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive


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