What Might We See in 3D Printing in 2018?

 3D printing developments in 2018?

3D printing developments in 2018?

I hate making predictions because they may turn out wrong. But let’s do so anyway. 

I’ve been observing the 3D print space for over ten years now and during that time there have clearly been a number of trends apparent. I believe some will continue on and evolve in 2018. Let’s make a list. 

More Varied Materials: With the now-solidified market of 3D printing professionals, including engineers, industrial designers and architects, we in 2017 saw the major chemical manufacturers visibly appear in the 3D printing scene. 

In 2018 we will no doubt see a vast increase in the variety of 3D printing materials as these companies, who are now “turned on” to 3D printing, unleash their vast libraries of chemical formulas for perhaps thousands of new 3D printing materials. 

Of course, not all of their proprietary materials will be suitable for 3D printing. Some will work on only one type of 3D printing process, others perhaps several. But in total there should be a huge increase in choice for professionals. 

But don’t expect these materials to be inexpensive. 

No True Consumer 3D Printing: While many hope for a breakthrough in consumer 3D printing, I just don’t see this happening in 2018. There are too many barriers yet to overcome, including: 

  • General misunderstanding of what 3D printing can and cannot do by the public
  • Lack of 3D skills or in some cases 3D perception by major segments of the public
  • Lack of easy to use 3D design tools that are actually accepted by the public
  • Useful 3D models (the design for your broken dishwasher knob, for example) are locked away by the manufacturer, inaccessible for use on consumer 3D printers
  • Finally, the ongoing lack of a potent use case that large numbers of people would take up

That doesn’t sound good, and it isn’t. However, one good piece of news is that the pricing barrier HAS been broken, with multiple reasonable sub-USD$200 3D printer options now available. However, the points above are still in the way until someone deals with them. Not happening in 2018.

Professional 3D Printer Price Wars: If 2017 was the year when expensive professional 3D printers swamped the market, then 2018 is the year when price wars may erupt between vendors. 

These machines are somewhat different from the very inexpensive desktop machines designed for consumers and the education market, but the price difference is stark: a USD$500 desktop 3D printer isn’t that much different, manufacturing-wise, from a USD$15,000 high temperature machine. 

I suspect there is a great deal of price margin in the more expensive professional units. This margin will become an issue sooner or later, and we may see price wars emerge between the major players. 

Low Cost 3D Metal Printers Will Edge Into Larger Markets: 2017 saw several new 3D metal printing options appear on the market. These used different 3D metal printing processes than the traditional DMLS approach that has been used for many years, and are often significantly less expensive.

However, the in-place technologies have obtained certifications that permit their technology to be used for certain high-value applications, such as aerospace, nuclear and medical. 

But it’s possible the lower-cost technologies may, at some point, also obtain some of these certifications and thus compete with the established DMLS players. 

And they may win, based on the huge price differences. 

But it will take considerable time for them to achieve that level of reputation in the industry. Will it be in 2018? Perhaps.

3D Print Tradeshow Consolidation: Over the past five years we’ve seen a burst of different 3D print trade shows, where vendors present their new products to the public. 

These are critically important for vendors, as they enable them to directly connect with elusive customers and prospects, as well as getting some media coverage. That’s why we attend such events: you can meet many vendors in one trip. 

But it’s expensive for our organization to attend, so we choose the events carefully. The same is true for the exhibitors. For vendors it can be spectacularly expensive to launch participation in an event, as they must not only send staff, but also whole machines and materials as well. It takes sometimes a year of planning to get it done right. 

As a result, vendors tend to select the events they participate in very carefully. They select the events where there are the most attendees and media coverage. This tends to cluster the participation in only the largest events? 

But which are the largest events? That’s been the question for the past few years, as the major trade show exhibitors have been jostling for position. We’ve seen at least one major exhibition disappear, but others are in flux. 

However, based on what we’ve seen the industry seems to be coalescing around a couple of dedicated 3D printing major events, sometimes to the detriment of others. The biggest winners appear to be Formnext, held annually in Frankfurt, which this past year had 470 exhibitors; Rapid, which has over 300 exhibitors, and possibly TCT in the UK. I suspect there is at least one notable Asian event as well, but I’m not familiar with activity on that side of the planet. 

Thus I suspect we may see the key events grow and others diminish or perhaps even disappear in 2018. One that may fade away is CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, where for some years it had around 100 3D print exhibitors hidden among the thousands of other vendors. This year’s show, which we are attending, is likely to have substantially fewer vendors. Somehow this makes sense as it is a consumer show, after all. 

Meanwhile, successful 3D print vendors will also appear at vertical industry shows to demonstrate their products to specific industries, such as dental, medical, aerospace, etc. But for 3D printing dedicated events, there are probably going to be only a few big ones and many smaller events. 

Factory Integration: The slow process of integrating 3D printing into large-scale manufacturing processes will continue, as it will take many years for this to properly occur. The problem is that until recently, almost every 3D printer has been developed as as standalone unit.

The standalone nature implies a lot of manual operation, and this simply doesn’t fit into today’s highly automated factories. In addition, 3D printers have to be built to participate not only physically but also digitally. There are digital protocols required for making equipment to effectively participate in the multi-step manufacturing processes used today, and 3D printers must have them in order to be used in this way. 

In 2016 and 2017 we saw some companies link up with Siemens for just this purpose, as Siemens produces factory software and equipment. It’s possible we may see the fruits of these relationships begin to arrive in 2018, with the announcement of new 3D printers specifically designed for the automated factory floor. 

Increased Post-Processing Methods: Using equipment efficiently is always important, and that’s been one of the problems with 3D printing for many years: completed prints must be manually processed in several ways. They may be sanded to finish the surface, or perhaps support structures must be removed. 

In recent years we’ve seen the beginnings of the solutions to some of these issues: some machines now offer methods to automatically remove 3D prints from the machine when completed; many companies now market methods of using water-soluble support structures that are easier to remove.

But so far no one seems to have put all these pieces together to create a machine that can literally remove parts and completely finish them without human intervention. I’m hoping someone announces a system to do so in 2018, as this is long overdue. 

“From Left Field” 3D Printing Processes: The unpredictable may happen. Each year someone comes up with an unusual twist on 3D printing approaches that changes things significantly. It could be something that dramatically reduces the cost of 3D printing, or perhaps increases the speed of 3D printing, which to be honest is still extremely slow. 

Imagine a process where all layers are printed simultaneously, for example. Is this possible? Not today, as far as I know, but perhaps there is a way to do this.

Researchers in labs and institutions around the world are working now on radically new methods of 3D printing. It’s very possible one of their ideas becomes a reality and is announced in 2018. 

What I do know is that such inventions won’t come to much unless the technology is paired with good business management and plenty of investment cash. 

But it’s very early in the year 2018 at this point and we won’t know if any of these ideas will actually come to pass until another 12 months elapses. 

General Fabb

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has been writing Fabbaloo posts since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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