It’s near year end and it is time to reflect on what happened.
2018 was certainly the biggest year in the history of 3D printing, with more applications being developed, more machines being sold, more people being turned on to 3D printing than has ever occurred previously.
Aside from natural growth, what happened? Our team discusses some of the observations we’ve seen during 2018.
Kerry: Engineering Materials
If the appearance of higher-temperature engineering materials in 2017 was the introduction, 2018 saw a huge increase in this phenomenon. The new major users of inexpensive 3D printers are professionals, typically architects, prototypers and designers who require very specific materials beyond the common ABS and PLA found on most equipment up to 2017.
This year saw countless introductions of new materials to address this need, including high-temperature versions of PLA, but also materials such as PEEK, PAEK, ULTEM and many more. Yes, these materials require specialized high-temp 3D printers, but those emerged as well to complete the ecosystem.
Kerry: Arrival Of The Chemical Companies
For several years we’ve watched BASF slowly attach themselves to various 3D printing companies as suppliers, partners or joint venturer. In 2018 it seems that the rest of the major chemical players discovered 3D printing and have appeared en masse.
This year we saw major players such as Mitsubishi and even Loctite join the 3D printing party. This is fabulous news because they will finally bring a wealth of complex and powerful materials to 3D printers in the near future.
Sarah: Materials Ecosystems and Partnerships
Tied closely with the above, these chemical giants are working directly with the 3D printing industry — and have been. HP’s partnerships in the MJF open materials ecosystem include high-profile materials companies like BASF, Evonik, and Lehmann & Voss. Industry trade shows like RAPID + TCT and formnext increasingly see traditional materials suppliers in both polymers (BASF, SABIC) and metals (GKN) displaying alongside 3D printing companies. While this has been picking up, in 2018 more of these companies bought their own booth space, rather than displaying solely with a partner in additive manufacturing.
Kerry: Opening Up Lower-Cost Metal 3D Printing Markets
Several companies introduced new metal 3D printing processes that were significantly less expensive than the traditional powder bed-laser SLM approaches available in the market for some years. These older processes produce high-quality, certifiable parts, but the price of producing them is beyond most industries aside from aerospace, medical and sometimes automotive.
The new processes, exemplified by such vendors as Desktop Metal, SPEE3D, Aurora Labs and others, hope to open up new applications for metal 3D printing by lowering the price. Aurora Labs in particular has been focusing on use of bulk metal 3D printing for mining, for example. I suspect one of the larger issues will be persuading smaller companies of the value as they will have the misconception of expensive 3D printing due to previous suppliers’ practices.
Sarah: Advances Toward On-Site Metal 3D Printing
Hand-in-hand with lower-cost metal 3D printing technologies, the processes being developed to introduce more accessible price points are being geared toward broader accessibility. 3D printing in the field is an attractive proposition, if done correctly. Mining, oil and gas, defense, and other heavy industries with operations in remote locations can benefit from making spare and replacement parts, and repairing existing parts, on-site. Work is beyond theoretical at this point, but hasn’t made it into the field quite yet beyond a few starter, showcase, or validation projects.
Kerry: Solidification of Original Startups
If 2017 saw the end of endless Kickstarters for near-identical desktop 3D printers, 2018 saw something quite different. It seems that several of the “original” 3D printer startups have morphed themselves into new business models that could prove very profitable for them in the future.
In particular, Ultimaker and Formlabs are now large and powerful 3D printer manufacturers that produce complex equipment used by businesses worldwide. This is a far cry from their original incarnations that were rough startups with only a handful of staff. 2018 was the year to finally mark them as firmly established major players in the 3D printing market.
Kerry: Standardization of Soluble Support
Soluble support seems to have been discovered by, well, almost everyone. The idea is that by using a dual extrusion approach, one can use a soluble material as the support structure. This means you can freely 3D print highly complex and delicate structures where support material simply dissolves instead of being yanked off violently, often destroying the 3D print.
It seems that most of the serious professional 3D printers now offer dual extrusion solutions simply for this reason. I can see a world going forward where dual extrusion becomes more or less a de facto standard.
Kerry: No End To New 3D Printing Processes
It never ends. Years ago it was said there might be only six different 3D printing processes. Well, that’s not true now. There are seemingly dozens of new processes or variations on existing processes, some quite powerful.
These will continue to arrive, but in 2018 they managed to shake up the market somewhat because of their disruptive nature. Examples of this could be XJet’s NanoParticle Jetting 3D printing technique, or Desktop Metal’s inexpensive metal 3D printing process.
Sarah: Focus On Regulation
The FDA, ASTM International, EU, and other regulatory bodies worldwide are expanding their focus on 3D printing. Especially in critical-use applications such as in medical and aerospace industries, qualification is a necessity. Validating 3D printed components for end use offers a level of trust to a newer technology, and creates a foundation for less-critical industries to build upon as adoption rises. FDA-validated medical models generated using Materialise’s Mimics software can now, for example, be 3D printed (using specified materials and machines) for FDA-cleared physical models ready for use in point-of-care settings.
Kerry: Resin Everywhere
Five years ago the only kind of 3D printing you’d find on the desktop was extrusion-based, where filament would be heated to toothpaste-consistency and extruded. But by 2018 we see almost an equivalent number of resin-powered machines that leverage photopolymer chemistry to produce objects that have better surface quality.
The introduction of so many new resin machines will surely stimulate the materials market to develop more powerful resins in the future.
Sarah: Efforts In Upskilling
he 3D printing industry is well aware of the existing skills gap as additive manufacturing requires new workflows. Design, installation, safety, operation, post-processing: every step of the additive manufacturing process must be developed, and those operating at each point (including investment) must gain the appropriate knowledge to see it through. Grade school curricula are more often seeing 3D printers brought to classrooms. Universities and community colleges are adding courses and degree-track programs. Professional training courses, from one-day seminars to e-learning to weeks-long hands-on study, are allowing those already in the workforce to add to their toolboxes. Leading institutions are increasingly working directly with the industry to develop and deliver training to present and future industry participants.
Sarah: Work Toward Diversification
The face of 3D printing expertise is changing. With broadened access to technology from a younger age and with more accessible introductions in the community, the user base is constantly evolving. There’s still a long way to go before the industry/community are really “diverse” but 2018 saw an increase in less homogeneous hiring. Conferences are bringing more women and people of color to the forefront as companies do the same in their boardrooms. Industry advocacy organization Women in 3D Printing became an official nonprofit in 2018, and I was beyond honored to join (with Carbon’s Dana McCallum) founder Nora Touré on the inaugural Board of Directors to continue conversations around diversification.
Sarah: Keyword ‘Serial’
2018 saw focus on the manufacturing in additive manufacturing as serial production took the spotlight. With tooling and jigs and fixtures proving themselves on production lines, end-use components themselves are now the target for serial additive manufacturing. 3D printing is working to make things better, faster, stronger, cheaper — and at volume. It’s still a long (long) road ahead, but this year may prove to have been a tipping point toward mass production for both plastic and metal materials and technologies. 3D printing: it’s not just for prototyping anymore. Seriously.
We’d like to thank you all for going along for the ride with us in 2018, and we look forward to a 2019 filled with more new developments and ongoing progress in 3D printing.
Happy New Year from our team at Fabbaloo to you and yours!