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It’s Time to Revisit Additive Manufacturing

Christopher Williams
By Christopher Williams, PhD Virginia Tech, SME Member Since 2021

Just over 10 years ago, additive manufacturing began to capture the broader public’s attention, thanks in part to a cover story in The Economist magazine hinting at AM’s potential to change the world. At the same moment, metal AM processes were rapidly maturing with the newly found ability to provide near fully dense metal parts directly out of the powder bed. Simultaneously, desktop-scale 3D printing was emerging, which promised a path to democratizing manufacturing. These two technological advances—which occurred at the exact opposite ends of the application spectrum—were a key element in bringing the terms additive manufacturing and 3D printing to the vernacular, despite the technologies’ 30-year history at that time.

The convergence of industrial robotics and additive manufacturing have resulted in new approaches for true 3D printing.

Perhaps this was the moment you first took a look into additive manufacturing. If so, you likely saw the excitement, the potential and the promise of the “complexity-is-free” paradigm afforded by a layer-wise approach to fabrication. However, after some digging, it is likely that you also saw a few challenges inherent in adopting an emerging manufacturing technology. Material selection was limited, and some performance properties were unknown. Throughput was slower than you needed. And there were lots of unanswered questions regarding process reliability, robustness and routes to qualification. Standards were only just beginning to be created. The reality that “innovation often proceeds science” became apparent.

As someone who began researching AM almost 25 years ago, one of my concerns is that many who invested resources in exploring AM technologies did so only at this time in its history, perhaps left a little disappointed and haven’t returned since.

While there remain gaps in our understanding, the processes, materials and industrial applications of AM have seen a massive evolution over the past decade. There are many factors that contributed to this dramatic change in the slope of AM innovation, many of which are centered in increases in federal research funding, the growth of startup culture, and geopolitical manufacturing reshoring initiatives, among others. But, in my view, the real driver for this evolution has been the strength of the community of people who have built it.

Specifically, the newfound excitement for a 30-year-old technology created a spark that attracted a tremendous diversity of technical expertise to the field that we had not seen prior. Originally born from the minds of mechanical and industrial engineers primarily focusing on how best to physically create 3D-CAD models, AM conferences became suddenly filled with metallurgists and polymer scientists eager to explore fundamental process-structure-property relationships, computer and data scientists willing to donate their expertise to provide a pathway toward in-situ process monitoring and experts in multiphysics and multiscale simulation looking to enable prediction of a part’s response to changing process parameters.

Emerging hybrid additive manufacturing processes enable selective, layer-wise deposition of material and finish machining in the same machine.

The impacts of this influx of interdisciplinary expertise are quite clear. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the catalog of materials that are able to be processed by AM. Better understanding of the processes have not only led to the translation of established materials as AM feedstocks, but also to wholly new alloys and polymers that have been designed a priori for facile layer-wise processing. The properties of these printed materials—and in turn the performance of the resultant parts—have also improved significantly through concurrent design of both the material composition and the process. We can now address those previously unanswered questions about part quality, fatigue performance and surface quality. Some AM processes have seen a hundred-fold increase in printing speed. We now talk about print sizes in terms of feet and meters thanks to new large-scale metal, polymer and concrete printing technologies. Dedicated latticing, topology optimization and generative “design for AM” software has enabled the realization of higher-performance, lighter-weight and cheaper parts. And the cyber infrastructure to support and secure the part geometry, material and process data that is passed along the digital thread has matured alongside AM to enable completely new production business models and viable applications.

Virginia Tech’s DREAMS Lab researcher Lindsey Bezek, PhD, has worked with local hospitals to develop a unique resin that allows for material jetting of patient-specific heart models. The models mimic heart tissue for surgical training.

All these advances are thanks to the influx of interdisciplinary expertise over the past decade. Of course, there are still numerous technical challenges and unanswered questions remaining—just as in any other advanced manufacturing technology. This means there is still tremendous room for growth for the industry. And, I believe we are on the precipice of another step-change stage in AM evolution thanks to an emerging engineering workforce that has witnessed how diversity within the industry has led to its dramatic growth. This year’s graduating class features many who chose to pursue engineering as a career specifically because their classroom’s desktop 3D printer captured their attention when they were 12 years old. The dramatic growth in the number of universities with sustained AM research programs and associated curricula also means that many of these graduating students have even played a direct role in advancing the technology.

So, if you last only took an in-depth look at AM in 2012, it’s time to look again. SME events, such as the upcoming RAPID + TCT event, May 17-19 at Huntington Place in Detroit, are a great place to see how much the technology, the applications, and most importantly, the community, have grown. Attending this event will not only be a great place to learn about the rapid maturation of AM, but I am confident you will find a space where your expertise can contribute toward our collective quest to address the remaining technology gaps and in imagining what comes next for this powerful approach to manufacturing.

Visit to learn more about SME’s AM Community and its various activities throughout the year. You can also register to attend RAPID + TCT at

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