3D printing has made considerable progress in 2019, with many milestones shaping the industry throughout the year. With a myriad of new developments, partnerships and applications, the industry continues to grow and become more consolidated.
As we move into a new year and a new decade, it’s only natural to wonder what the future holds for the 3D printing industry. In this article, we dive into the 10 key 3D printing trends that will unfold over the next 12 months.
1. The 3D printing landscape will become even more diverse
The 3D printing industry is growing in diversity, as the number of players entering the market increases.
One evidence of this trend is the 2019 edition of Formnext, the event attracting almost the entire industry. In 2019, it was by far the biggest ever: 852 exhibitors representing 35 per cent growth over the previous year.
The growing number of exhibitors is encouraging, as it means that the industry is on a steady growth path. But at the same time, this growth is signalling the increasing number of companies entering the market as start-ups and spinoffs, with new technologies or their own take on existing ones.
Some examples of newcomers with promising technologies, include silicone 3D printing start-up, Spectroplast; a developer of low-cost Laser Powder Bed Fusion 3D printer, One Click Metal; and Stratasys spin-off, Evolve Additive Solutions, which has developed a completely new 3D printing based on the electrophotographic process.
Furthermore, AMFG’s Additive Manufacturing Industry Landscape (2019) has identified more than 80 3D printer manufacturers, the majority of which appeared in the last 5 to 10 years.
In 2020, we expect this number to grow considerably, fuelling healthy competition and pushing companies to focus on innovation and development.
2. A wider range of application-specific materials are on the horizon
According to a recent survey by Jabil, material cost and availability are two of the key challenges when it comes to adopting 3D printing for production. While material costs are unlikely to decrease substantially in 2020, we’ll definitely see more materials developed with industrial applications in mind.
Manufacturing giant, Jabil, for example, opened its Materials Innovation Center at the start of 2019 to do just that.
The Materials Innovation Center is an end-to-end facility for developing, testing and manufacturing polymer powders and filaments for 3D printing. Its goal is to be able to take application requirements – from Jabil or external customers – and convert them into materials that can be printed.
There are still not enough options in polymer 3D printing materials on the market, compared to the range of materials for injection moulding. It means that the developments, like the one from Jabil, will help to fill the gaps in materials, driving a new generation of 3D printing applications.
In addition to a renewed focus on material development, large material companies will get even more involved in the AM industry by expanding across the AM value chain.
We’ve seen examples of this throughout 2019, with material manufacturers acquiring AM service providers and creating new business units dedicated to AM.
Gradually, a number of material producers, like BASF and GKN Additive, are transforming to solution providers. This makes them well-positioned to gain a stronger foothold in the market, while driving the industrialisation of AM.
3. Expect more options for high-temperature polymer 3D printers and materials
In 2019, we saw a surge in high-temperature polymer 3D printers entering the market from companies like Roboze, Zortrax and Essentium. This surge has been largely driven by the growing demand for high-performance thermoplastics like PEEK.
These thermoplastics have many compelling properties, like heat and chemical resistance, as well as high strength and durability, which makes them sought-after in many industrial applications. But due to such properties, they can be challenging to print.
3D printer manufacturers are overcoming this challenge, by equipping their printers with a heated bed and a high-temperature nozzle.
That said, the number of solutions available for printing high-performance polymers remains small. As the demand for high-performance plastics is growing, 2020 will see more high-temperature 3D printer launches, furthering the adoption of polymer 3D printing across industries.
4. Composite 3D printing will enter a growth stage
Composites are lightweight, strong materials, highly sought-after in industries like aerospace, automotive, oil and gas and industrial goods. When combined with 3D printing, the technology can streamline and cut the cost of composite manufacturing, when compared to typically manual traditional composite manufacturing methods.
That’s why we believe that composite 3D printing will step on a strong growth path in the year ahead.
2019 laid a good foundation for this growth. For example, composite 3D printing companies, like Fortify and Impossible Objects, raised millions of dollars in funding. Then technology company, Arevo, announced the successful application of its composite 3D printing technology to manufacture bike frames.
Furthermore, initially metal 3D printing company, Desktop Metal, made a move into a composite space with the launch of its Fiber 3D printers.
Finally, there’ve been a lot of partnerships between hardware and material companies, aimed at developing composites for 3D printing.
Combined, these activities point to a huge, yet still largely untapped, potential of composites 3D printing. We’ll see even greater endeavour to push composite 3D printing forward, bringing a lot of innovation in the composite space in 2020.
5. The evolution of 3D printing software will accelerate significantly
Until recently, focus on 3D printing software has been lacking, when compared with the hardware and materials segments. With 3D printing, designers have had to deal with a cumbersome design preparation process, where a lot of disparate design tools create an inefficient and complex workflow.
Furthermore, simulation software also needs to evolve to enable more accurate simulation results. Finally, the tools for designing for additive also need to become more intuitive and easier to use.
We anticipate 2020 to be the year when we see many of the software challenges being solved. Software innovations, particularly in the design space, will come into greater focus, unlocking a faster and easier 3D printing design process.
Ultimately, creating software solutions to meet AM needs will serve as a key enabler for integrating the technology into a production environment.
6. MES software will become essential for scalability
Many companies are now looking to establish an AM serial production line. However, in doing so, they’re faced with many workflow challenges.
For example, many AM operators and technicians still have to manually manage work orders, check build statuses and spend a lot of time identifying parts after they’re printed. This results in a lot of operational bottlenecks, which make scaling and effectively managing AM production a challenging task.
We see 2020 as the year when more companies will realise that achieving scalable production with 3D printing is virtually impossible without an end-to-end management system in place.
This will create a greater need for workflow management solutions – also known as Manufacturing Execution System (MES) software.
Developed with AM needs in mind, MES software solutions can help to establish an ecosystem, where different stages of the AM workflow are linked together to achieve a streamlined and digitalised AM process management.
Integrating MES software into a 3D printing facility or department is a crucial step on a 3D printing journey, and its importance will be growing apace with the technology industrialisation.
7. Post-processing automation will take centre stage
Already in 2019, there’s been a strong focus on tackling the challenges of the 3D printing post-processing stage, such as manual processes.
Entering 2020, we’ll see a greater push to automate post-processing operations, thanks to a number of innovative solutions appearing on the market.
Post-processing equipment, from companies like AMT, DyeMansion and PostProcess Technologies, is already helping many AM users to automate support removal, cleaning and colouring for polymer-based 3D-printed parts.
AMT, in particular, is working to overcome the depowdering challenge, typical for powder-based AM technologies like SLS.
According to AMT’s CEO, Joseph Crabtree, ‘there’s currently no other way to do it [depowdering] than manually. Even traditional tumbling solutions still need a lot of manual intervention’.
The company is currently trialling its depowdering solution, which enables users to automatically unpack the powder bed, de-powder and remove the parts from powder bed AM systems. The machine is promised to be launched this year, as a part of AMT’s end-to-end post-processing solution.
Ultimately, adding post-processing automation to a 3D printing equation will enable manufacturers to transform 3D printing into a continuous process that will work much better in a volume production setting.
8. High-volume 3D printing will take a step closer to becoming a reality
Currently, 3D printing is typically viewed as a technology suitable for low to mid-volume production. While it will continue to be the case in 2020, we’ll also see more opportunities to achieve higher-volume production with 3D printing.
One of the technologies that will drive this trend is metal binder jetting. The technology has unique capabilities of reaching high printing speeds and making high-precision components, using cheaper metal injection moulding metals.
In 2019, metal binder jetting underwent somewhat of a renaissance, with an increased focus on developing production-capable machines. In 2020, we’ll see these developments begin to bear fruit.
In 2019, ExOne, for example, introduced the new X1 160PRO™ metal 3D Printer for high-volume production, slated for late 2020 commercial availability. In a similar vein, Desktop Metal released its latest Shop System, a machine shop-friendly version of its Production System. The Shop System will also become available later this year.
A powder user of AM, GE has a beta binder jetting machine, suited for high volume low-cost parts. The machine is already running at the factory floor of GE’s strategic partner, Cummins, a large manufacturer of power generation products.
Metal binder jetting solutions could unlock new avenues for the use of 3D printing in high-throughput industries like automotive. That’s why, for example, Volkswagen is partnering with HP as an early user of its Metal Jet technology.
Within polymer 3D printing, high-volume production applications will be even more widespread.
Already in 2019, HP presented an application case for over a million parts, 3D printed by dental company, Smile Direct Club. Similarly, 3D Systems’ machines have been churning out hundreds of thousands of parts for Align Technology. We expect many more similar cases across other industries to crop up in 2020.
9. Data will become key to increasing repeatability for 3D printing
Most AM technologies require a comprehensive build setup to ensure the part completes the printing process and can undergo post-processing. As most AM users know, this is sometimes easier said than done, as it’s not uncommon to face part-to-part and machine-to-machine variations and inconsistencies.
One way forward is to gather as much data as possible, which can provide insight into the 3D printing process. In 2020, there will be a big focus on doing just that.
Some hardware manufacturers are already enabling AM users to gather data by fitting 3D printing systems with sensors to enable in-process monitoring and control.
Sensors and cameras placed inside a 3D printer, then feed the data back to specialised software that measures and analyses multiple aspects of a build in real-time, helping to document the build process and ensure requirements are met.
Third-party solutions are starting to appear on the market as well. Just recently, Additive Assurance has launched the beta version of its metal 3D printing quality assurance platform.
Essentially, Additive Assurance offers a sensor package for upgrading a powder-based metal system with in-process monitoring and quality assurance capabilities. While currently in beta, the platform is set for a full product release in late 2020.
That said, the concept of collecting and acting upon 3D printing data is still in the early stages, with only a few solutions available on the market. However, we anticipate seeing more examples of integrating process control capabilities into 3D printing hardware throughout the year.
This will introduce greater process repeatability, ultimately generating more confidence in 3D printing as a production-ready technology.
10. Collaboration will accelerate AM for production
As the 3D printing industry continues to mature, there are still many challenges that need to be overcome along the way. One of the most effective ways to do so is through collaboration.
Industry, government bodies and research institutions must work closely to enable the development of AM toward broad applications in industry.
The industry has seen many highly visible collaborative efforts throughout 2019. One example is The Industrialization and Digitalization of Additive Manufacturing (IDAM) project started by 12 project partners, consisting of SMEs, large companies and research institutions, and co-ordinated by BMW.
The three-year project will look to enable AM production of at least 50,000 components per year in common parts production and more than 10,000 individual and spare parts for the automotive industry.
We expect to see collaborations accelerating even more in 2020. More material manufacturers, machine builders and users will have to collaborate to create close process chains and interoperable workflows, in order to scale up and achieve higher efficiency with 3D printing.
Ultimately, creating a collaborative ecosystem will make it easier and faster to bring AM to larger-scale industrialisation and to increase acceptance of the technology in the market.
3D printing in 2020: Focus on full-scale industrialisation
In 2020, 3D printing will continue its path towards industrialisation, as established industry players and newcomers continue to invest in and drive innovation with the technology. The advancements that pushed 3D printing to where it is today will continue into 2020, indicating the staying power and sustained development of the technology.
Of course, there is work to be done on proving 3D printing’s competitiveness outside of its relatively small pool of users and niche applications. Joint industry effort will be one of the key driving forces to achieve this goal.
So as we look to the year ahead, 3D printing will continue its steady progress, overcoming the existing challenges, bringing forward new applications and expanding its reach to new horizons.
Read more: 20 AM experts share their predictions for 2020.