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Growing AM Industry Shows its True Mettle in COVID-19 Pandemic

By Noah Mostow Wohlers Associates
By Terry Wohlers Wohlers Associates

When supply chains were severely disrupted in the early days of the pandemic, AM providers stepped in, demonstrating the responsiveness and value of the technology

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Production-volume metal AM parts being produced for the Rolls-Royce Ghost. It is one of the applications discussed in Wohlers Report 2021.

Over the past decade, additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has continued to grow and solidify its place within private industry, academia, and government.

The AM industry experienced strong double-digit growth from 2010 through 2019. Average growth was 27.4 percent per year over this period, based on extensive research conducted for the Wohlers Report. Adoption of AM for series production and tooling applications has contributed to this growth. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a challenging year for many in product development and manufacturing. Even so, Wohlers Associates estimates AM industry growth worldwide was in the range of 7-9 percent for the year. Industry growth is expected to rebound to pre-COVID levels by 2022.

Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, global supply chains collapsed, but AM provided a rapid response capability. For example, organizations used 3D printing to help produce face shields and masks, nasal swabs, and replacement parts for ventilators. This brought attention to the technology in ways the AM industry had not previously seen. This quick and agile response improved conditions for healthcare providers and may have saved lives.

Markforged, Watertown, Mass., is installing more than 300 of its material extrusion 3D printers across Michigan as part of Project DIAMOnD. The initiative was created in response to COVID-19 by Automation Alley to improve manufacturing agility. [Editor’s note: Automation Alley is a Michigan non-profit dedicated to advancing the economy via automation.] The 3D printers from Markforged form a network that can be started remotely to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies as needed.

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The CGX Quick-20r EEG headset includes 19 “pods” that house the EEG sensors and contact a person’s head to capture brain activity. With AM, CGX could make the pods adjustable with three degrees-of-freedom.

The disruption caused by the pandemic has adversely impacted many AM service providers and producers of machines, materials, and software. The industry is expected to rebound as vaccines allow for safer travel and improved support for product development and manufacturing. Pent-up demand for AM products and services could help vulnerable companies remain in business.

From Concept to Production

Even in a pandemic, companies continued to use industrial 3D printers for rigorous prototyping and manufacturing. Using the same process and material for both activities can have a profound impact on the way products are developed and brought to market. Over the past 25+ years, 3D printing has developed into an attractive process for iterative design. It has replaced expensive and time-consuming methods of making prototypes at many companies. However, AM often involves the use of machines and materials that are different than those used for series production. Using the same machines and materials for both product development and manufacturing creates benefits and a new way of thinking.

One example comes from collaborative work between Avid Product Development, Loveland, Colo., an AM service provider, and CGX, San Diego. CGX makes electroencephalogram (EEG) devices for research and clinical use. An EEG headset records the electrical activity of a brain. Traditional headsets are challenging to set up and uncomfortable to wear. These complex devices are ideal for AM at CGX because production volumes are fewer than 1,000 units annually and the unit cost is relatively high ($20,000 and up).

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A part printed via AM for the Rolls-Royce Ghost.

For the CGX Quick-20r headset, many design iterations were developed and tested. The final design consolidates 80 unique parts into 30. The device includes 19 “pods” that house the EEG sensors and contact a person’s head to capture brain activity. With AM, CGX could make the pods adjustable with three degrees-of-freedom, a feature that would have otherwise required assembly. Instead, they were preassembled digitally and 3D printed.

The Jet Fusion system from HP Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., was used for product development and manufacturing parts in PA11 (nylon). Ira Friedman, president of CGX, said the product would require 200 individual parts if they used injection molding. Tooling for these parts would have required extensive upfront capital, which was avoided with the use of AM.

AM Products Point to the Future

3D printing has proven ideal for complex structures, replacement parts, on-demand manufacturing, and mass customization. Three different footwear companies are pursuing this: FitMyFoot, San Diego; Superfeet, Ferndale, Wash.; and iOrthotics, Windsor, Australia. These companies create custom insoles using a 3D scan of a customer’s foot. The shape of the insole is adjusted, digitally, to create a perfect fit. On a larger scale, Supertrata, San Francisco, uses AM to create a bicycle fit to a customer’s size and riding style. Consumers do not inherently fit into standard sizes, so 3D printing helps to provide better sizing, increasing the value of a product.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd., London, a part of the BMW Group, is manufacturing metal parts for its Ghost motor car. Most metal AM production runs are well below 100,000 parts, but the company said that hundreds of thousands of AM parts will be produced for the Ghost model. In June 2020, the BMW Group opened its Additive Manufacturing Campus in Oberschleissheim, Germany, just outside Munich, and has produced more than 300,000 precision AM parts to date.

Within the aerospace industry, Boom Supersonic, Denver, is using metal AM to manufacture flight-critical parts for the XB-1 supersonic aircraft. AM is ideal because the parts are complex and produced in low volumes. Boom Supersonic partnered with Velo3D to design 21 parts for engine hardware, environmental control systems, and even some that are structural in nature. The complex parts must withstand extreme environments and would have been challenging to produce with conventional methods of manufacturing.

In 2020, Honeywell Aerospace, Phoenix, received FAA certification for its first flight-critical engine part made via AM. The part is a bearing housing for the ATF3-6 turbofan engine on the Dassault Falcon 20G maritime patrol aircraft. The engine was originally designed in 1960, and only about a dozen of them are still in service. Maintenance can be challenging due to a lack of replacement parts. AM is ideal for this engine part because it is difficult to manufacture and extremely expensive to produce in low volumes.

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The Aurelius Mk1 microturbine from Sierra Turbines, printed in Hastelloy X using Velo3D printers.

Sierra Turbines, San Jose, Calif., is using AM to create a more efficient microturbine used in propulsion systems for unmanned aerial vehicles. With AM, the Aurelius Mk1 microturbine consolidates 61 parts into one and can be printed in 50 hours. In the future, the hope is that Sierra Turbines will be able to scale the design for commercial airliners.

The use of metal AM for gas-powered turbines is becoming more common as it enables design freedom, lightweighting, and better performance. The Aurelius Mk1 aims to increase time-between-overhaul by a factor of 40X and power-to-weight ratio by a factor of 10X by leveraging Velo3D’s metal 3D printing process in Hastelloy X.

ArcelorMittal, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, a steel and mining company, partnered with Additive Industries, Eindhoven, Netherlands, to manufacture on-demand replacement parts near the location where they are needed. Prior to the partnership in 2017, ArcelorMittal produced small replacement parts. It can now make parts up to 420 × 420 × 400 mm (16.5 × 16.5 × 15.75") in size.

In the power and energy sector, SINTEF, Trondheim, Norway, and Equinor, Stavanger, Norway, partnered to create Weldar, a directed energy deposition system for repair applications. Weldar is used for offshore drilling where corrosion from seawater can halt production. The system uses 3D scanning to help design and repair parts onsite. This reduces downtime and the need to stock replacement parts onsite.

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GE Renewable Energy, COBOD and LafargeHolcim have partnered to build this prototype wind turbine tower via AM. Because it can be manufactured onsite, the tower can be taller than wind turbines manufactured using conventional methods and transported to the site.

GE Renewable Energy, Paris, COBOD, Copenhagen, Denmark, and LafargeHolcim, Zug, Switzerland, have partnered to build a taller wind turbine tower. Due to road restrictions, most commercial wind turbine towers cannot exceed 100 m (328'). With AM, it may be possible to build commercial towers more than 150 m (492') in height by manufacturing them onsite. Energy output is expected to increase by as much as 30 percent using a taller tower. This is a view of how concrete 3D printing may be used for more than just the walls of a building.

Investments Abound

Investments in the AM industry have grown from millions of dollars to tens or hundreds of millions over the past several years and represent the innovative potential of the industry. One example is Xometry, Gaithersburg, Md., an on-demand marketplace for industrial parts. It has raised more than $193 million since its founding in 2013, including $75 million in 2020 to develop the company’s software platforms. The Xometry network has more than 5,000 partners, including AM and other manufacturing processes.

Nano Dimension, Ness Ziona, Israel, raised $333 million in a January 2021 public offering on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. Machines from the company produce electronics, including printed circuit boards. This brings the total amount of money raised by the company to nearly $1 billion since the beginning of Q4 2020.

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Nano Dimension produces Hi-PEDs (high-performance electronic devices) that are specially designed for the additive process. This enables the Hi-PEDs to have better performance and allow form factors not possible with conventional electronic manufacturing. The Hi-PED shown here demonstrates 3D vertical stacking of integrated circuits.

In December 2020, Desktop Metal, Burlington, Mass., completed its merger with Trine Acquisition Corp., New York City. Following the merger, Desktop Metal had an initial public offering, with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. As part of the transaction, Desktop Metal received an additional $575 million from Trine and other investors. Even more impressive, the company’s market capitalization reached $7.6 billion in February 2021. Desktop Metal offers 3D printers for metal and composite parts.

In addition to investments and public offerings, the industry is seeing several mergers and acquisitions. For example, Desktop Metal announced the acquisition of EnvisionTEC, Gladbeck, Germany, for $300 million in January. The same month, Protolabs, Maple Plain, Minn., agreed to acquire 3D Hubs, Amsterdam, Netherlands, for $280 million.

Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) involves a range of techniques used to maximize the value of AM for production applications. It can make the difference when building a business case around the use of AM technology. Companies most successful with AM for production understand the value of DfAM. They recognize the need to design a product by consolidating parts and reducing material and weight using topology optimization and lattice structures. Reducing the use of support material with DfAM can reduce the time and cost of building and post-processing AM parts. However, DfAM is not well understood at most companies.

Surveys in connection with the Wohlers Report, an AM industry study published for 26 years, show that pre- and post-processing of AM parts can represent more than 40 percent of their total cost. By applying DfAM and methods of post-process automation, these costs can decline significantly. Companies such as DyeMansion, Planegg, Germany, and Solukon, Augsburg, Germany are creating automated solutions that reduce expensive labor. However, most companies have not adopted these technologies.

The cost of industrial machines for AM continues to be a challenge for even the largest corporations. Prices for AM machines that produce metal parts range from about $100,000 to $5 million, with an average selling price of $467,635, according to our research for Wohlers Report 2020. This is slowing widespread adoption. One solution is to significantly increase the speed of the machines.

Material prices are also a factor when considering AM for relatively high-volume production. Material for AM can cost 10 to 100 times more than a similar material for conventional manufacturing. As more companies scale AM into production, overall production volume will increase, and pricing is likely to decline. However, this may take years. For many applications, material costs do not deter from using AM for prototyping and low-volume production runs.

New materials for 3D printing are continually being commercialized, but the number of them still pale in comparison to those available for conventional manufacturing. For each AM system, only a handful of materials are typically available. This can make it more challenging to adopt AM for specific production applications.

3D printing is not a push-button process. For AM to grow in the aerospace, automotive, medical, and other sectors, process repeatability is critical across machines and operators. For broad adoption to occur, this quality challenge must be overcome so that organizations can produce the same part on machines around the world.

Over the past 12 months, the world has been challenged by COVID-19. Countless organizations with AM capacity have helped fill supply chain gaps, which likely resulted in saving lives. The pandemic slowed business at companies that develop, support, and use AM products and services and it has resulted in some closures. Even so, others have done well, while helping to advance the development and acceptance of AM, especially for production. With so many product development programs put on hold, pent-up demand for AM may help make up for losses.

This article includes highlights from Wohlers Report 2021, produced annually by Wohlers Associates. For information, visit wohlersassociates.com

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