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AM Continues Rapid Ascent, Targets New Markets

Ray Huff Associate Engineer, Wohlers Associates Inc.
By Ray Huff Associate Engineer, Wohlers Associates, Inc.
Terry Wohlers
By Terry Wohlers Head of Advisory Services and Market Intelligence, Wohlers Associates
The Wohlers Report is produced annually by Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO).

Additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as 3D printing, is a vibrant and dynamic field. Each year, developments in AM allow organizations to create products that were previously unthinkable. Novel design methods, advanced materials and complex geometric features are some of the reasons why AM stands out among methods of manufacturing. It is causing nearly every industrial sector to rethink the way they might design and manufacture products. New AM system manufacturers, material producers and software developers, as well as interesting business models, are entering the market. They present endless possibilities for those in product development and manufacturing around the world.

Those possibilities are being developed today, as new applications spur strong demand for AM. The fast growth in metal AM that began in 2013 continues apace. Annual growth in machine unit sales averaged 49% for the years 2013 through 2016, according to our research for the Wohlers Report. Growth figures for 2017 were not yet available at press time.

Developments and Advances

The early adopters of the late 1980s and 1990s quickly tapped into AM to produce prototypes, design aids and some types of tooling. Over time, users discovered how it opened new frontiers to manufacturing parts of extraordinary complexity.

However, this force of AM remained mostly dormant for years, largely untapped by designers. Costs, material limitations and resistance to using methods of rapid prototyping prevented AM from becoming a viable option for production applications.

The question that is dawning on companies now is how to take advantage of the innate power of the geometric freedom offered by AM. The technology promises to reduce physical inventories, offer far more product variety and encourage steps toward on-demand manufacturing.

Using a method called cranial orthosis, this custom-fit infant helmet gently reshapes a baby’s skull as it grows. It was produced on HP’s new color 3D printing system. Photo credit: Invent Medical and NACAR.

Some companies have seen the frontier of design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) as a land of opportunity and are making a bid to claim territory for themselves. In February 2018, Desktop Metal (Burlington, MA) announced a partnership with Dassault Systèmes (Vélizy-Villacoublay, France) and unveiled Live Parts, software that uses geometric constraints and structural requirements to grow new designs from “seeds.” Most methods of topology optimization subtract material digitally, but Live Parts uses an additive approach to generating a new design using the power of the cloud.

Meanwhile, Autodesk Inc. (San Rafael, CA) continues development of Project Dreamcatcher, a generative design approach of leveraging cloud computing to create optimized designs. These and other companies take inspiration from nature to “grow” designs in much the same way organisms develop, an approach known as biomimicry.

Several relatively new companies have raised large sums of funding in the past year. Among them is Carbon Inc. (Redwood City, CA), which has heavily marketed its Digital Light Synthesis process for building production parts in photopolymer. In December 2017, Carbon raised $200 million in series D funding to continue development. This brings the total investment in the company to $422 million, with a valuation of $1.7 billion. In July 2017, Desktop Metal raised $115 million to further its goal of bringing metal 3D printing to a new level of accessibility. A total of $212 million has been invested in the company thus far, with a valuation of more than $1 billion. The company claims that the binder jetting version of the company’s two metal printing processes is 100 times faster and 20 times lower in cost than popular metal powder bed fusion processes.

Color 3D printing saw a significant development this year with HP’s new Jet Fusion 300/500 Series of polymer AM systems. The process uses fusing and detailing agents to join layers of powder that form multicolor parts without loss in performance, print speed, or part strength, according to the company. This opens the door to a wide range of new applications for color 3D printing of strong, functional parts in polyamide 12. Previous multicolor methods of 3D printing have been relegated to more fragile parts for nonfunctional applications.

Low-Cost Desktop Systems

Desktop 3D printers that sell for less than $5000 have impacted the market in ways few expected just 10 years ago. Their accessibility, versatility, and relative ease of use have made them a popular choice among design teams, entrepreneurs, and educational institutions. Desktop 3D printers have reached a high-profile media presence, attracting the attention of a wide range of customer prospects and others. This has propelled the adoption of 3D printing by companies that may not have otherwise considered this relatively young, but quickly maturing technology.

Estimated number of under $5000 AM systems sold annually since 2007.

Over the past decade, many companies have grown out of the RepRap project, an initiative launched in 2005 to produce low-cost machines, spurred by expired patents and open source technology. These companies began what some considered a “race to the bottom” in machine pricing, but this chase has eased considerably. The focus is now on quality and ease of use. Several companies have failed to keep up with increasing competition and disappeared from the market. This is inevitable when hundreds of startups worldwide target a market opportunity and pursue it in parallel. Today, many of the manufacturers of low-cost systems are competitive and have experienced steady growth as acceptance of their products continues to climb.

Figure 1 represents the estimated number of under $5000 AM systems sold annually since the RepRap project began to gain traction in 2007. By comparison, an estimated 13,058 industrial AM systems were sold worldwide in 2016, according to research for Wohlers Report 2017. An estimate for 2017 was not available at press time.

Production Applications

One of the earliest adopters of AM technology for production applications are organizations in the aerospace industry. They recognized and took advantage of opportunities for part consolidation and lightweighting of parts and assemblies on aircraft and spacecraft. Companies such as Airbus, Boeing, GE Aviation, and Honeywell Aerospace have invested substantial resources to develop and industrialize the technology. In January 2018, GE Aviation successfully tested its Advanced Turboprop Engine, one-third of which is printed in a titanium alloy. The new engine design consolidates 855 separate parts into 12, reducing weight by 45.4 kg (100 lb) and trimming fuel consumption by as much as 20%. The new design also gives the engine 10% more power and simplifies maintenance.

 Peter Sander (pictured) and others at Airbus used the Giant Victoria Water Lily as inspiration that led to the design of a light but strong spoiler for aircraft. It was produced on a metal AM system by powder bed fusion.

The medical industry has also taken advantage of AM’s unique benefits. The ability to produce organic shapes from biocompatible materials makes AM an attractive way of manufacturing parts that mimic the body’s anatomy. Stryker Corp. (Kalamazoo, MI), for example, is investing $400 million in an AM facility for the production of 3D-printed orthopedic implants, such as parts for knees and the spine. Other manufacturers, such as Lima Corporate and Zimmer Biomet, are also making large investments in AM and are using it for the production of a range of orthopedic implant products.

Adidas AG (Herzogenaurach, Germany) entered the additive manufacturing scene in a big way in 2017. Combining AM’s capabilities of complex shapes and features, Adidas partnered with Carbon to produce the Futurecraft 4D athletic shoe product. It makes use of complex lattices in the midsole of the shoe to create special physical properties and performance characteristics. In February, the company released the AlphaEDGE 4D LTD running shoe, which also includes a 3D-printed midsole. These creative footwear products demonstrate the potential of AM’s impact on markets previously untouched by the technology for full-scale production. Other major footwear companies, such as Nike, New Balance, and Under Armour have demonstrated limited edition products and are likely to follow Adidas’ lead.

The automotive industry shows promise in using AM for reducing spare part inventories for older model vehicles. Producing parts on-demand reduces the need to stock parts that are no longer in production. However, acceptance of the idea has been slow due to the cost of AM materials and machines, coupled with supply chain considerations. Even so, Daimler Trucks has announced that it is creating a digital warehouse of spare parts for its fleet. It will test the parts over the course of a year to certify the viability of this workflow in the supply chain. In early 2018, BMW announced a new service for Mini Cooper customers to personalize four parts of the car’s trim with custom graphics. The four custom parts, priced at EUR 149, will be 3D printed in polyamide by laser sintering and made available in May 2018.

Obstacles to Growth

Historically, one of the key drawbacks to AM in production has been its slow processing time. That, combined with often extensive post-processing, has increased cost and slowed the adoption of AM for production applications. Post-processing of parts can represent up to half of the expense for metal parts. The making of parts by metal powder bed fusion usually requires substantial anchors and support structures to prevent part warping when printing, cooling and removing the parts from the build plate. AM system manufacturers and others are investing in R&D to reduce this labor-intensive and expensive process. One example is the NextGenAM project, a joint venture between Premium AEROTEC (an Airbus company), Daimler, and EOS. The effort focuses largely on reducing the time and cost associated with post-processing metal AM parts.

Last year, Desktop Metal released a new method in which support structures are joined to the part by an intermediate ceramic layer. After printing, the part is broken free of its supports with mild impact (i.e., tapping the part and attached support structures on a benchtop) rather than extensive machining and other processes. The support material falls away from the part, reducing time and cost.

Material cost is another barrier to scaled production of AM parts. The cost of injection molding polymer is typically around $2–$3 per kg ($0.91–$1.36 per lb), depending on the material product. Meanwhile, materials for industrial AM systems are usually in the range of $40–$250 per kg ($18–$114 per lb). HP has made it a goal to lower material pricing for its machines. In November 2017, HP released the HP Jet Fusion 3D 4210 system, which it claims reduces the price of polyamide 12 by 50% to about $30 per kg ($13.64 per lb). Others may follow HP’s lead.

Fitting the Needs of DfAM

Organizations in product development have been employing formative and subtractive manufacturing methods to produce goods for decades. The design skills and tools that have been developed over time lend themselves principally to these methods of production, and often do not fit the needs of DfAM. In fact, it is rare to find a designer with even a few years of DfAM experience. Nor is an abundance of mature CAD tools available with DfAM in mind. In response to this shortage, educational institutions, private companies, and others, such as America Makes, are developing and offering training programs in DfAM. Universities, including Penn State and the University of Maryland, even offer full masters-level degree programs in additive manufacturing.

Three decades of AM development have created a foundation for the technology to meaningfully contribute to and help grow the nearly $13 trillion global manufacturing economy. While the growth of the AM industry has had peaks and valleys, investment in the technology has not only been steady, but far-reaching. When introducing a technology that unencumbers the design and manufacture of nearly any physical good, it is difficult to imagine a market that will not be affected. As barriers of material cost, production speed, and limited DfAM experience are addressed, the practicality of adoption becomes a reality for new users globally. It is an exciting time to be involved in the industry and to contribute to what will only continue to be among the most diverse and ever-changing technologies of our time.

The Wohlers Report is produced annually by Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO). For information on Wohlers Report 2018, visit

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