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Additive Manufacturing 2.0?

A full build box of watch cases for 3D printing on the Production System [Image: Desktop Metal]

Is the current inflection point for 3D printing tipping us into “Additive Manufacturing 2.0”?

At least one company thinks so, as Desktop Metal used the phrase in yesterday’s announcement of its move to go public. CEO Ric Fulop used it as well when we spoke about the strategy, underscoring the importance the company is placing on this ‘next phase’ of additive manufacturing.

Specifically, the Desktop Metal announcement said:

“The additive manufacturing industry grew at a 20 percent annual compound rate between 2006 and 2016 before accelerating to 25 percent compound annual growth over the last 3 years, a rate that is expected to continue over the next decade as the market surges from $12 billion in 2019 to an estimated $146 billion in 2030. This market inflection is being driven by a shift in applications from design prototyping and tooling to mass production of end-use parts, enabled by the emergence of what Desktop Metal refers to as ‘Additive Manufacturing 2.0,’ a wave of next-generation additive manufacturing technologies that unlock throughput, repeatability, and competitive part costs. These solutions feature key innovations across printers, materials, and software and pull additive manufacturing into direct competition with conventional processes used to manufacture $12 trillion in goods annually.”

And Fulop explained to me:

“Our industry has had a high cycle focusing on jigs and fixtures, short-run production, things like that. The last time we had a big boom in 3D printing, it was primarily companies that are kind of the old guard that had started in the 1980s and 1990s, who were focused on prototyping, and jigs and fixtures. This Additive 2.0 phase is parts produced competitively versus other processes. Our Shop System competes with CNC; our Production System makes parts at scale. The industry is projected to grow from $12 billion to approximately $146 billion by the end of the decade; that’s a huge amount of shift from Additive 1.0 to Additive 2.0. We love doing these prototypes, but if it’s fast enough and cost-effective, we can go now to production.”

Additive Manufacturing 1.0

By these definitions, “Additive Manufacturing 1.0” would be the early days of this nascent industry.

This would take us from the early 1980s and development of the first “three-dimensional printing” technologies — SLA and FDM (FFF) — and the entrance of “rapid prototyping” into more vocabularies. So tightly interwoven is rapid prototyping into this part of the history of the technology that many long-time industry participants still refer to “RP” instead of “3D printing” (much less “additive manufacturing”). 3D Systems and Stratasys had their starts early on, working with the inventors of, respectively, SLA and FDM 3D printing. These two companies shined for years as the industry’s earliest and brightest stars.

The first decade or two of 3D printing was reserved for mostly rapid prototyping and jigs and fixtures, at least commercially.

Desktop 3D printers, like early MakerBot and RepRap systems, emerged in the early part of the millennium. And so hobbyists and other small-scale users entered into 3D printing. Interest in this sector drove straight into the hype of the early-to-mid-2010s, as the technology exploded in popular interest. Of course, the “death of 3D printing” followed soon after, as many realized they couldn’t just “make anything” quickly and easily in their own homes.

During this “death” period of disappointment, though, the technology chugged on, and industrial companies made some of their biggest advances yet. 3D printing overall grew into a more defined technology suite, with ASTM defining the seven primary processes and other industry bodies taking official notice as well.

In the last few years, more “big” players have entered into additive manufacturing from outside the industry — GE and HP perhaps the biggest names among them. Pure 3D printing companies also emerged with intriguing new approaches, and some of the most successful of these now stand as unicorns: Carbon, Formlabs, Desktop Metal.

Material, software, and post-processing efforts picked up substantially as well. Engineering-grade materials demanded notice from traditional materials suppliers, and many entered into 3D printing: Arkema, BASF, DSM, Evonik, Owens Corning, Solvay. Software companies devoted resources and subsidiaries; popular suites like SOLIDWORKS increasingly became viable for 3D printing. New software entities emerged focused solely on 3D printing. Post-processing began to emerge from the shadows, going from the “dirty little secret” of additive manufacturing to a business strategy.

All of these entities began to turn their attention to something newer for the industry: production.

Additive Manufacturing 2.0

And so we find ourselves today at what many are referring to as an inflection point for additive manufacturing.

Adoption has been picking up for years — and if anything, the terrible global outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated adoption and reignited public interest in the technology over the last half-year alone — as 3D printing is becoming increasingly capable of living up to the claims behind the hype.

It is entirely possible now to 3D print parts that meet FAA certification and will fly; some FDA-approved medical implants have been helping people move more easily for decades now; almost every hearing aid and dental aligner produced today is 3D printed. Most major automotive companies and aerospace suppliers use 3D printing throughout their product development cycle, increasingly including for end-use parts.

Is this, then, a new stage in additive manufacturing?

Is the inflection point so poignant that it’s 2.0?

Perhaps, yes. We’re certainly seeing burgeoning interest in additive manufacturing and more and more actual manufacturing adoption of the technology.

But doesn’t “Industry 4.0” / “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” cover it? Do we have to brand everything with a techie-sounding “number-point-oh”? And really, is “Additive Manufacturing 2.0” really as catchy as “Industry 4.0”? These may be up for debate, sure, and the claim could easily be made that Desktop Metal wanted to coin the phrase simply to proclaim, as they did in the headline of yesterday’s press release, to be “the Only Listed Pure-Play Additive Manufacturing 2.0 Company” — but they do also have a point.

Additive manufacturing is at an inflection point. If anything, perhaps this is simply a signal that we should acknowledge that and stop describing it as a “nascent industry” — maybe it’s grown up enough that it can be, simply, an industry.

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