3D printing is coming of age. Not that long ago, we were still getting excited at machines that could print a 3D model of our head, or a miniature replica of a famous building. A few years later, new generation machines could print medical devices and implantable human body parts. Meanwhile, 3D printing technology for industry has also progressed very rapidly—and it’s a space to watch closely in 2020.
Additive manufacturing—the technical name for 3D printing—transforms the way we build objects, opening up a universe of new possibilities. By gradually adding layers of materials, instead of cutting and soldering, 3D printing allows us to build parts with new geometries. And new geometries have different physical properties: think of a honeycomb structure that gives you greater resistance with less weight. This is where 3D printing becomes a very powerful tool for industrial applications: we can now build parts that are lighter, more heat resistant, stronger; and we can build the same products with fewer parts: for one of their jet engines, GE engineers reduced 855 separate parts to just 12, dramatically simplifying the assembly process.
With additive manufacturing, complexity is free: we can build a geometrically very complex object as easily as a simpler one. But at the same time, additive manufacturing helps reduce complexity by giving us fewer parts to assemble.
3D printing allows the use of new materials—and in turn it spurs materials science research to develop yet new materials best suited to the additive process. Aided by AI and spurred by 3D printing, expect new materials discovery to accelerate in 2020.
Additive manufacturing plays a major role in the Industry 4.0 revolution; it will help upend traditional economies of scale, making microfactories economically efficient; and it’s already contributing to reshape global supply chains, strengthening local networks.
In 2020, however, the most exciting new developments will likely come from the evolution of 3D printing technology itself. Manufacturers of 3D printers are working hard to expand the performance of their machines along different dimensions:
3D printers will get faster: for additive manufacturing to achieve scale, 3D printers need to produce much greater volumes, and to do this they need to print faster. Impossible Objects, founded by serial entrepreneur Bob Swartz, has already been pushing the limits of speed, with a thermal inkjet technology that leverages the speed properties of 2D printing. Earlier this year, Impossible Objects unveiled a new machine designed to be ten times faster than traditional 3D printing processes. The race is on—expect more speed records to be broken in 2020.
3D printers will ‘colonize’ a wider range of environments. Additive manufacturing can be a delicate process. In many 3D printers, it takes place inside a chamber that controls temperature and humidity and keeps out extraneous particles. This can significantly limit what these machines can do. MELD Manufacturing has developed machines that can print in uncontrolled environments: they can operate ‘in the field’, on oil rigs and in army forward operating bases; free of the constraints of a controlled chamber they can print larger components and be used to repair as well as to build new parts. In 2020, expect to see 3D printers to operate in a wider range of remote environments. Think of a remote and hard to reach mining location, where being able to print a replacement part rather than waiting for a new one to arrive could dramatically reduce production losses.
3D printers will become more versatile, able to handle and combine an expanding variety of materials. Markforged has developed machines able to print different metals, superalloys, nylon and chopped carbon fiber. Impossible Objects has partnered with BASF to accelerate the development of new materials for additive manufacturing. “3D printing is a materials science problem”, says Impossible Objects’ Bob Swartz. XJet has developed a Nano Particle Jetting technology that allows the same machine to print metals and ceramics, changing the composition and properties along different parts of a single seamlessly printed object. In 2020, expect to see 3D printers that can use and mix a growing range of materials; and expect an acceleration in new materials discovery, spurred by the progress in additive technology.
Software advances will amplify the power of 3D printing. Additive manufacturing is a highly digital process. In fact, a key benefit of 3D printing is that it allows to modify the design of a component by simply changing the digital blueprint—massively accelerating the cycle of design-prototype-test-production. But software plays a much bigger role in additive manufacturing: Essentium already uses software to check materials and production protocols, such as extrusion temperature, so that the parts produced can be certified, protecting against counterfeiting. Markforged has developed a cloud-based solution that allows products and parts to be designed in one location and immediately produced thousands of miles away, so that different manufacturing facilities in the same company can access the same blueprint in real time. In 2020, expect additive manufacturing to develop new software solutions to bolster IP security, remote collaboration, and manufacturing precision.
The 3D printing ecosystem will grow at a faster pace through an acceleration in partnerships and collaborations. It’s become evident that realizing the full potential of 3D printing requires the coming together of companies with different backgrounds and expertise, startups and large companies. We have mentioned above the collaboration between Impossible Objects and BASF, which highlights the synergy between additive manufacturing and the development of new materials. Equally important: the fact that 3D printing allows us to exploit new geometries challenges industrial designers to think differently, to reimagine products and components in brand new ways. AI can help, by powering generative design processes. But we also need new education and training programs to raise a new generation of industrial designers. Collaborations that cross the traditional expertise lines will accelerate this process. Meanwhile, collaborations on Manufacturing-as-a-Service platforms will enable a more efficient use of production capacity, giving manufacturers more flexible access to 3D printing capabilities.
In 2020, 3D printing will confirm its role as one of the most transformational and consequential technologies in the fourth industrial revolution.