The year 2021 has ended, and it’s time to look back to see what happened in 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing.
Last year this publication produced no less than 1280 stories, each on 3D printing and associated technologies. In other words, we’ve seen a lot, and in that stream of news we observed a number of trends. These are activities that seem to be occurring in several locations or companies. They provide an indication of where things went in 2021, and how the industry has changed.
Let’s take a look at our observations, in no particular order:
The pandemic hit in early 2020, but its effects continue. The major one for the 3D print world is that manufacturers discovered the fragility of their supply chains. While they were able to obtain cheap parts from overseas providers, they could no longer do so reliably.
This has given a horrific shock to industry, and the reaction is to insource as much manufacturing as possible. Unfortunately, traditional making methods are not always cost efficient, particularly for low volume production that so many small and medium-sized businesses require.
Instead these companies have discovered they can achieve their production goals using 3D printing equipment that has a different price to volume curve than their usual approaches. Even better for the industry is that once this equipment is on site and staff explore its potential, more complex and ongoing use of additive approaches appears to be happening.
2021 will be the year that manufacturers in general switched on to additive manufacturing.
In the financial world, 2021 was the year when the majority of big 3D print companies “went public”, meaning they transformed from privately held companies to publicly-traded companies that appear on a stock market.
We saw the addition of Xometry, now number two on our weekly 3D print leaderboard, along with Velo3D, Markforged, Shapeways enter the market. Several other companies entered later in 2020 as well, making the past 18 months a race to get that delicious investor cash.
Shifting to Manufacturing
More than a few desktop 3D printer manufacturers made moves to the more profitable professional and manufacturing sectors. This is not a new phenomenon, as we saw quite a number of desktop equipment manufacturers make the switch during the consumer crash of 2014.
This year we saw multiple product announcements from Prusa Research suggesting they are angling for that market as well, with their AFS system and the acquisition of Trilab, a manufacturer of professional and industrial delta 3D printers.
Another company making this move is Sindoh, the Korean printer manufacturer that debuted in 3D printing with their revolutionary 3DWox some years ago. After spending several years attempting to profit in that market, they’ve decided to focus on the industrial market where they could gain more profits.
Race to the Bottom Levels Out
For many years there was a “race to the bottom”, where inexpensive desktop 3D printers invented in the West were copied, modified, re-engineering and eventually replaced by more advanced models. All along the way the average price of a usable system gradually fell.
In 2021 we tested a number of these machines and found almost all to be extremely capable 3D printers, far more sophisticated than the first machines to appear years ago. Even better, they were available at quite low pricing levels.
There was a time when I looked for sub-US$100 3D printers, but that doesn’t seem to ever happen. In fact, I now believe the low price point has stabilized in the US$200-300 range. While that’s not as low as some would want, the 3D printers in that market are now exceptionally good quality and useful for many applications.
Complex 3D Modeling
One of the most important ways to leverage 3D printing is to make parts that are not possible to produce with traditional methods. Such parts might be far more lightweight than conventional parts, or use far less material to achieve the same function.
The problem is that designing such complex parts is quite challenging using the standard 3D CAD tools.
To that end, in 2021 there was greatly increasing interest in specialized tools to create these 3D models. Vendors most prominently producing these tools include nTopology, Teton Simulation, and Carbon, which recently opened up access to their tools to non-Carbon clients.
While the “3D printing part” of the production process is obviously important, there is much more to do beyond that step. Organizing jobs to stream towards 3D printers is no simple act, and more complex when customers continually demand more parts.
After printing there are typically multiple steps required to post process fresh prints, and all this leads to a complex overall workflow that’s required of any serious user of additive manufacturing. To alleviate issues, several vendors have launched a variety of workflow services. Some have partnered with 3D printer manufacturers to make the entire experience of buying and using equipment far smoother.
This approach is likely here to stay, as it just makes so much sense.