Though young, 3D printing has already imposed itself as one of the most disruptive technologies in recent decades.
From prosthetic limbs and car parts to 3D printed homes and musical instruments, this technology is pushing the limits of what’s possible. Its market value is rising as well and is set to reach $23 billion by 2022. And as a growing number of companies use 3D printing tools to make end-products and prototypes, understanding the trends that shape the future of this technology is crucial.
One of those trends is the development of faster and cheaper 3D printers that could potentially increase sales and multiply the applications for these machines. Also, engineers and project managers skilled in 3D printing will be in ever higher demand, while healthcare and aviation companies are predicted to continue using this technology to train employees and improve products. All of this has made executives across the world optimistic and firm in the belief that 3D printing will indeed help their businesses launch products faster and reduce the cost of manufacturing.
3D printers could become even faster
The downside of 3D printers is that an increase in printing speed usually leads to stronger vibrations that reduce the product quality. But an algorithm created by researchers at the University of Michigan could address this issue as it enables printers to work two times faster while still maintaining a high level of quality. An industry expert, Todd Grimm, thinks that future advances will surely lead to time savings, especially in the post-production processing of 3D printed objects as more “automated finishing options become available”. On top of that, related software is poised to be improved as well and contribute to higher accuracy in the production process.
Plastic is still dominant, but metal grows in popularity
Plastic remains the most widely used material for 3D printing, but the use of metal as ‘ink’ will become more popular in 2019 and beyond. And while it’ll most likely never fully replace traditional manufacturing, metal 3D printing has a lot to offer. For instance, Andreas Bastian from Autodesk combined 3D metal printing with investment casting (a metal-shaping method) to produce magnesium-based airplane seats that are around 50 per cent lighter than traditional seats. This is a one-off project, though, carried out to demonstrate the potential of this cutting-edge technology.
Also, HP Inc. recently unveiled its Metal Jet 3D printer that’s allegedly faster than the competition and suited for mass production. Dr. Tim Weber, the global head of HP’s metals 3D printing business, says, “We’re going to start with one material and really nail that, end to end. Develop all the process controls there. Then we will systematically expand into other steels. The approach is market-driven.” The first products made by HP’s new printer will probably reach customers in 2019. And as the market gets more competitive, Grimm predicts that it will lead to cheaper 3D printers.
Increase in 3D printer sales and a lack of skilled engineers
More affordable machines could lead to an increase in sales, and as the survey carried out by Sculpteo, a 3D printing company, shows, “buying a 3D printer has become more and more of a long-term priority” for many managers. But the industry is slowly becoming a victim of its own success. There are only so many engineers skilled in 3D printing, and faced with a booming business, companies often can’t find enough skilled staff to complete all projects. The fact that many high schools and universities lack educational programs focused on 3D printing isn’t helping either. And while companies like Stratasys, a manufacturer of 3D printers, are trying to overcome this issue by helping universities create courses in 3D printing, it remains to be seen if this method will yield any results.
In the meantime, companies that use 3D printing tackle increasingly complex projects and the demand for skilful project managers is on the rise. In fact, 13 percent of companies in Sculpteo’s survey plan to hire a project manager this year, compared to only three percent in 2017. Such a highly skilled workforce is needed to implement, among other things, niche-specific projects that are seen as one of the main ways to unleash the full potential of 3D printing. To illustrate, when the hearing aids industry discovered 3D printing tech, in less than two years, 90 percent of its products were made by 3D printers. Finding applications for this technology is therefore equally as important as developing the technology itself.
3D printed aircraft pieces and surgical training
Industries that have found ways to apply 3D printing are numerous and include healthcare, aviation, agriculture, and many others. Gartner, a research company, predicts that by 2021, three-quarters of new aircraft will be equipped with 3D printed engines. Boeing has already deployed this tech at 20 production sites and has made 50,000 low-cost, lightweight, and thermally stable 3D printed parts for commercial and defense projects. Furthermore, 3D printing enabled General Electric to reduce the number of components in its Advanced Turboprop engine from 855 to just 12, decreasing the weight by 45 kilograms, boosting horsepower, and increasing fuel savings.
Gartner also claims that 25 per cent of surgeons will use 3D printed models of patients to practice for surgeries by 2021. Meanwhile, agriculture benefits from this technology as well, and farmers can use it to, for instance, produce hard-to-find spare parts for tractors and other farming equipment, saving time and money.
The positive impact of 3D printing technology
3D printing is a growing industry with the potential to improve our lives and the modern economy. Its market value is set to rise due to the expected increase in sales of faster and cheaper 3D printers, as well as new production materials. And from aviation and healthcare to agriculture and manufacturing, entrepreneurs are finding more and more ways of using this tech to make better products. Companies are therefore well advised not to ignore the potential of 3D printing and the positive impact it’ll undoubtedly have.