The outlook for additive manufacturing is strongly positive as new capabilities
and uses develop rapidly, prompting new products and applications
Each year, users the world over—and some in outer space—discover new ways to put additive manufacturing (AM) to work. AM contributes to product improvements, increased efficiency, green initiatives, global partnerships, material developments, and groundbreaking innovations. As new players adopt AM for production, interesting applications emerge.
For example, Materialise NV, Leuven, Belgium is working with nearly 30 brands to produce consumer eyewear with AM. It is believed that the company has more experience with the production of eyewear than any other AM company worldwide. This has not deterred Fitz Frames, a startup in Youngstown, Ohio. It has developed a phone app for “trying on” eyewear virtually. The app measures facial features in real time and allows you to try on virtual frames with immediate feedback. Custom-fit frames are printed on polymer powder bed fusion (PBF) systems, finished, and shipped to customers. In October, Carbon Inc., Redwood City, Calif., and JINS, Tokyo, announced a partnership to produce 3D-printed eyewear with soft latticed padding for improved comfort.
3D scanning technology often accompanies AM for developing custom products. Optical scanning software and hardware is improving, and so is its ease of use. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10+, for example, comes preloaded with a built-in 3D scanner that captures and processes full-color scans in a short time. Some objects can be scanned in under a minute.
However, this might be a long-term vision rather than short-term reality. 3D scanning software for smartphones is not new, but it is underdeveloped and difficult to use. It is conceivable that within a few years, every owner of a smartphone could scan parts of themselves and order custom-fit footwear, eyewear, clothing, helmets, sports gear, and other personalized products in minutes. Stay tuned.
AM Smiles on Dental
The dental market found early success in adapting AM to custom production. Align Technology Inc., San Jose, Calif., for example, has made dental aligners for years by thermoforming polymer sheets over 3D-printed molds. The company produces more than 454,000 aligners per day, as of Q3 2019. Competition is hot on its tail, however, as new companies enter the market with attractive offerings. SmileDirectClub, Nashville, Tenn., bypasses orthodontists entirely, offering services directly to qualifying patients at lower cost. The company operates 49 Multi Jet Fusion machines to produce up to 50,000 aligners per day. Lightforce—a startup backed by investment firm AM Ventures Holding GmbH, Starnberg, Germany—is looking to improve traditional braces with AM, serving orthodontic patients that do not qualify for polymer aligner treatment.
More dental news is coming. In September 2019, GuardLab Inc., New York announced a partnership with Bauer Hockey, Exeter, N.H., to co-develop a new line of mouthguards created with AM. The mouthguards, called APEX, feature a patent-pending, pre-indented bite pattern based on thousands of dental scans. According to the company, the unique concave shape of the mouthguard gives a better fit after thermoforming by the athlete.
Newer applications for AM range from small, but important, to large. In August and September 2019, Carbon announced partnerships with Specialized Bicycle Components Inc., Morgan Hill, Calif., and Fizik, owned by Selle Royal SpA, Pozzoleone, Italy, to produce bicycle saddles by AM. Both use lattice structures to produce lightweight, shock-absorbing seats for rider comfort and reduced risk of injury. Many cyclists complain of discomfort with conventional saddles, so improvements are welcome.
Large-scale material extrusion systems are adding new value to applications. One such is tooling for forming processes. Polymer tools can be produced quicker by 3D printing and machining. Many systems, such as those from Cincinnati Inc., Harrison, Ohio, and Thermwood Corp., Dale, Ind., feature secondary milling heads to finish surfaces during or after printing. Large polymer tools are much lighter than their metal counterparts at a fraction of the cost.
Also, in large-scale AM, concrete printing is gaining traction for some construction applications. However, erroneous claims of houses being printed in one or two days are fodder for sensational articles. In reality, using AM in construction is better suited for aesthetic and otherwise expensive custom parts of a building or structure. For Example, XtreeE, Rungis, France has created ornate pillars, shelters, benches, and hidden radio towers shaped like palm trees. XtreeE and others have produced coral-like reef restoration structures with concrete. These applications can be expensive and time-consuming using conventional manufacturing and fall squarely within AM’s wheelhouse. This is an interesting area to watch as AM finds its way into such an established and fairly conservative industry due to tradition, skilled labor, and regulations.
Investments, Acquisitions, and Unicorns
AM is fertile ground for investments of all kinds. AM Ventures, which is affiliated with the EOS Group, Germany, has done its homework and spurred the growth of a number of AM startups. The firm scouted 1,200 AM-related startups and invested in 13 of them in Europe, the U.S., and Australia. Through research led by Arno Held, chief venture officer for AM Ventures, the company determined that 41 percent of high-tech companies in Germanic countries typically survive. That number drops to 27 percent in the U.S.—possibly because they are much more easily launched—and roughly 20 percent in western, eastern, and northern Europe. Startups elsewhere in the world do not fare as well.
In July 2019, NASA invested $73.7 million in Made In Space Inc., Mountain View, Calif., to build an in-space assembly robot. The machine is being designed to 3D print and assemble solar array structures in low-Earth orbit. Relativity Space, Los Angeles, raised $140 million in October to fund its 3D-printed space vehicle project. GE Aviation, Evendale, Ohio, has invested $50 million to expand its AM capacity. The expanded GE facility in Auburn, Ala. is targeting serial production of AM parts for its GEnx-2B engine program.
Many AM mergers and acquisitions occurred in 2019. GKN Powder Metallurgy Inc., Auburn Hills, Mich., acquired Forecast 3D (Forecast Product Development Corp., Carlsbad, Calif.) in October. With the acquisition, GKN combines its metals experience with the 25-year polymer AM veteran. In November, AM service provider Sculpteo, Villejuif, France, was acquired by materials giant BASF SE, Ludwigshafen, Germany. The deal expands BASF’s direct experience with AM and showcases its AM materials.
More than 50 sizable partnerships were observed among AM companies in 2019, many of them focused on AM applications. GE Additive, Boston, partnered with Bralco Advanced Materials Pte. Ltd., Singapore to 3D print magnetic parts. New Balance Athletics Inc., Boston, joined Formlabs, Somerville, Mass. in developing footwear with 3D-printed midsoles. Velo3D Inc., Campbell, Calif., and automotive company PWR Performance Products, Ormeau, Queensland, Australia are working together to build heat exchangers with optimized alloys.
Many system manufacturers are collaborating with materials companies to develop new chemistries. Among them are Evolve Additive Solutions, Minnetonka, Minn., and Evonik Industries AG, Essen, Germany; Rapid Shape GmbH, Heimsheim, Germany, and Henkel AG & Co., Düsseldorf, Germany; and Stratasys Ltd., Rehovot, Israel, and DSM Additive Manufacturing, Heerlen, Netherlands. Some companies collaborate simply to gain access to valuable AM process knowledge and experience. Premium Aerotech, Augsburg, Germany, a subsidiary of Airbus, is sharing its AM knowledge with Lockheed Martin, Bethesda, Md., for its F-35 Lightning II program. SLM Solutions Group AG, Lübeck, Germany and Honeywell, Charlotte, N.C., are working together to develop faster metal AM processes.
AM is also a land of unicorns, but not the ones you might think. In finance, unicorns are private startups valued at $1 billion or more. Three such firms have quickly risen to prominence in AM. Carbon leads this group, having raised $680 million and being valued at $2.4 billion in June 2019. Desktop Metal, Burlington, Mass. was valued at $1.5 billion in January 2019, and Formlabs passed $1 billion with its August 2018 valuation.
Of course, valuations mean little in themselves. They represent potential value to investors and shareholders, and show the optimism of the market toward emerging applications using AM. It is notable that two of these companies are producers of vat photopolymerization systems (VP), the first AM technology to be commercialized. VP produces the highest resolution parts with arguably the best surface finish at speeds competitive with other AM processes. Material and process developments have made the technology more useful over the past few years. Carbon’s emphasis on close collaboration with its users may be a key to its growth.
Big Demand, Bigger Challenges For Metal AM
Metal PBF has had years to develop in the aerospace and medical industries, and demand is growing fast. In May 2019, Donald Godfrey of Honeywell Aerospace said the company had access to 100 metal AM machines. However, demand at the time required 420 machines. The lost revenue of out-of-service assets make on-demand spare parts valuable, even when the cost of a metal AM replacement is significantly higher than one that is made with conventional means.
Metal PBF has also seen strong scrutiny in highly regulated industries. Unlike machining, which forms parts from a known bulk material, PBF forms material with complex metallurgy as parts are built. Companies under close watch by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must invest time and capital to certify parts for flight. If they intend to use complex shapes, quality QA and inspection can be difficult and expensive.
Process monitoring and simulation tools have shown tremendous potential, but they are data-intensive and difficult to implement. A metal build simulation can take more time than the build itself. Organizations such as America Makes, ANSI, ASME, ASTM, ISO, NIST, SME, and the U.S. Department of Commerce have demonstrated support of AM industry standards and qualified processes and materials. Boeing, Siemens, and many others have developed tightly held IP in their AM production processes.
Countries developing metal AM capabilities, such as South Africa, are a proving ground for the technology. Metal AM service provider Metal Heart, Stormill, Gauteng, South Africa displayed advanced valves and pistons for motor vehicles at the 20th annual Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa (RAPDASA) conference and exhibition in November 2019. Using lattice designs only manufacturable by AM, it made steel valves tougher than stock titanium products, and aluminum pistons that are 30 percent lighter than OEM pistons.
Interest in metal binder jetting has been on a dubious rise over the past few years. The technology shows promising speed and cost with certain designs, but issues of tolerances and repeatability need to be overcome. Practitioners of metal binder jetting, such as Digital Metal and ExOne, have been operating for years and have learned hard lessons. Newcomers to binder jetting include Desktop Metal, GE Additive, and HP. They have R&D dollars to spend, but big marketing budgets may be giving an overly optimistic view of the technology. Only time will tell whether it will deliver.
Sintering in a furnace is a crucial step in producing metal parts by binder jetting with acceptable accuracy and density. The process is not simple and small defects can magnify when sintered. AM processes produce anisotropic green parts, which cause variation and dimensional scatter after sintering. In spite of the difficulties, Ford has invested in sintering and has partnered with Desktop Metal to integrate it into production lines. Other companies are also showing interest. Volkswagen, Wolfsburg, Germany, partnered with HP to produce its first production run of toy cars in November 2019. In September 2019, battery producer KeraCel, Santa Clara, Calif., showed a new application for binder jetting: doubly-efficient lithium ion batteries. The full battery is printed and then finished in a furnace.
As users begin to seriously approach AM for final-part production in respectable volumes, the need for automation and batch post-processing becomes important. At RAPID + TCT 2019 in May, BMW, Munich, Germany reported quadrupled productivity by automating an AM production cell while reducing the need for nine industrial 3D printers to two. Cases like this could push AM into new avenues of production yet unseen at many companies.
At Formnext 2019 in November, Additive Manufacturing Technologies (AMT), Sheffield, U.K. displayed pick-and-place automation systems for sorting parts from de-powdered PBF builds. A single polymer PBF build often contains hundreds of distinct parts for many customers. Sorting these parts after cleaning is time consuming and error prone, but smart software and robotics can help. 3D Systems showed a method of printing QR codes into translucent parts to speed part tracking.
Also at the show, EOS had an automated build removal system, driven by robots from Grenzebach Maschinenbau GmbH, Asbach-Bäumenheim, Germany. With this system, a series of machines can print and de-powder parts to increase machine uptime with less human intervention. AMT, as well as DyeMansion GmbH, Planegg-München, Germany showed systems that smooth part surfaces with vaporized solvents. The systems aim to reduce surface roughness of PBF parts and make them watertight for use in finished products, including food containers.
The promise of AM far outreaches past accomplishments. Innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers, and anyone with a healthy dose of gumption can find areas of opportunity. The benefits of AM in many industries are being felt, yet many onlookers are still cautious when making decisions associated with the technology. The growth curve is healthy, steady, and methodical. Some early adopters have already garnered wealth and fame in this blossoming industry, while others, satisfied with early accomplishments, struggle to cope with competition and fresh innovation.
This article includes highlights from Wohlers Report 2020, produced annually by Wohlers Associates Inc. For information, visit wohlersassociates.com