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Wohlers Gives State-of-the-Industry Rundown

Terry Wohlers
By Terry Wohlers Head of Advisory Services and Market Intelligence, Wohlers Associates
By Noah Mostow Wohlers Associates, powered by ASTM International

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has continued to mature over the nearly 35 years since being introduced commercially. The aerospace, automotive, defense, energy, transportation, medical, dental and consumer products industries are adopting AM for an impressively wide range of applications.

With this vast adoption, it has become clear that AM is not a one-size-fits-all solution. According to the ISO/ASTM 52900 terminology standard, nearly all commercial AM systems fall into one of seven process categories. They include material extrusion (MEX), vat photopolymerization (VPP), powder bed fusion (PBF), binder jetting (BJT), material jetting (MJT), directed energy deposition (DED), and sheet lamination (SHL). They are presented here in the order of popularity based on unit sales.

An expanding number of industry professionals, including engineers and managers, are understanding when AM can help improve a product or process and when it cannot. Historically, a large initiative to adopt AM has come from engineers who have experience with the technology. Management is seeing more examples of how AM can improve performance, shorten lead times, and create opportunities for new business. AM will not replace most forms of conventional manufacturing, but instead become a part of an arsenal of options for entrepreneurs in product development and manufacturing.

Business Cases for Adoption

AM applications vary widely, ranging from microfluidics to large-scale construction. The benefits of AM are different depending on the industry, application, and desired performance. Regardless of the use case, an organization should have a good reason to adopt AM. The most common is for concept modeling, design validation, and fit and function testing. A growing number of companies are using it for tooling and series production applications, including custom product development.

Multiple waveguides consolidated into one 3D printed part. (Provided by Swissto12)

For aerospace applications, weight is a major consideration. According to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, it costs about $10,000 to put 0.45 kg of payload into Earth’s orbit. Reducing the weight of a satellite can save in launch costs. The accompanying image shows a metal AM part produced by Swissto12 that combines multiple waveguides into one part. With AM, the weight was reduced to less than 0.08 kg.

AM is being used through the entire value chain in the energy industry. For some companies, the business case for using AM is to iterate designs quickly to create the best possible product in the shortest time. In the oil and gas sector, a damaged part or assembly can result in a loss of thousands of dollars or more per hour in production. Using AM to help get an operation back in service can be especially compelling.

MX3D, a manufacturer of large-scale DED systems, released a prototype clamp to repair a pipeline. According to the company, a damaged pipeline can cost €100,000–1,000,000 ($113157–1131570) per day. The clamp, shown on the following page, uses CNC parts as the frame and DED to weld the circumference of the pipe. AM provided high deposition rates with minimal waste, while CNC delivered the required precision.

In 2021, a 3D printed waterbushing was installed on an oil rig from TotalEnergies in the North Sea. A waterbushing is a safety-critical part that controls hydrocarbon kicks from wells under construction. In this case, the benefits of using AM were shorter lead times and a 45-percent decrease in emissions, compared to a traditionally forged waterbushing.

Oil and gas pipeline clamp. (Provided by MX3D)

Another AM business case is a reduction of expensive tooling. Phone Skope designs digiscoping adapters, devices used to connect a phone camera to a telescope or microscope. New phones are released every year, requiring the company to release new lines of adapters. Using AM, the company saves money on expensive tooling that needs to be replaced when new phones are released.

As with any process or technology, AM should not be used because it is seen as being new or different. It should improve product development and/or the manufacturing process. And it must add value. Examples of other business cases are custom product and mass customization, complex features, consolidating parts, less material and weight, and improved performance.

Increasing Automation

For AM to reach its growth potential, challenges need to be addressed. For most manufacturing applications, the process must be reliable and repeatable. Automating part and support material removal and downstream methods of post-processing will help. Automation also improves throughput and lowers the cost per part.

One of the areas being addressed the most is the automation of post-processing, such as powder removal and finishing. By automating the process for series-production applications, the same technique can be repeated thousands of times. The challenge is that specific methods of automation can vary by part type, size, material and process. For example, automating the post-processing of a dental crown is very different than a part for a rocket engine, even though both may be produced in metal.

Powder flowing from a metal part using Solukon’s SPR technology. (Provided by Solukon Maschinenbau)

As parts are optimized for AM, more complex features and internal channels are often added. For PBF, a major challenge can be removing 100 percent of the powder. Solukon manufactures automated powder removal systems. The company has developed a technology it calls Smart Powder Recuperation (SRP) that rotates and vibrates metal parts still attached to the build plate. The rotation and vibration are driven by the CAD model of the part. By precisely moving and shaking the part, the entrapped powder flows, almost like a liquid. This automation reduced manual labor and can improve reliability and repeatability of powder removal.

The challenges and limitations of manually removing powder can limit the feasibility of using AM for series production, even in low quantities. The Solukon metal powder removal system can operate in an inert atmosphere and collects the unused powder for reuse in the AM machine. Solukon surveyed customers and released a study in December 2021 showing that the two greatest concerns were occupational health and repeatability.

Manually removing powder from a polymer PBF build can be time consuming. Companies such as DyeMansion and PostProcess Technologies are manufacturing post-processing systems for automated powder removal. Many AM parts can be loaded into the system, which tumbles and blasts media to remove excess powder. HP has its own system that is said to remove powder from the build chamber of Jet Fusion 5200 in as little as 20 minutes. The system stores the unfused powder in a separate container to be reused or recycled for a non-AM application.

Companies can benefit from automation if it can be applied to most post-processing steps. DyeMansion offers systems for depowdering, surface finishing, and coloring. The PowerFuse S system loads parts, applies vapor to smooth parts, and unloads them. The company offers a stainless-steel rack to hang the parts, which is done manually. The PowerFuse S system can produce an injection-mold like surface finish.

 The biggest challenge for the industry is to understand the real opportunities automation can provide. If a production run of one million polymer parts is needed, a conventional molding or forming process is probably the best solution, although it depends on the part. AM can often be used for the first production run while tooling is being produced and tested. With automated post-processing, thousands of parts can be produced reliably and repeatably using AM, but it is part-dependent and can require custom solutions.

Developments Point to the Future

AM is industry agnostic. Many organizations are presenting the results of interesting research and development that could lead to functioning products and services. In the aerospace industry, Relativity Space has produced one of the largest AM systems for metal parts using proprietary DED technology, which the company hopes to use to produce much of the rocket. Its Terran 1 rocket can send 1,250 kg (2,755 lb) of payload into low-earth orbit. Relativity has scheduled a launch for mid-2022 to test the rocket and it is already looking toward producing a larger, reusable rocket called the Terran R.

As-built polypropylene HP Multi Jet Fusion part, left, and vapor smoothed. (Provided by DyeMansion)

The Terran 1 and R rockets from Relativity Space are innovative approaches to rethinking what future space flight might look like. The design and optimization for AM contributes to the excitement of this development. The company claims the approach reduced part count by 100 times, compared to a conventionally manufactured rocket. The company also claims it can produce a rocket from raw materials in 60 days. This is a good example of consolidating many parts into one and dramatically simplifying supply chains.

In the dental industry, AM has been adopted to create crowns, bridges, surgical drill guides, partial dentures, and aligners. Align Technology and SmileDirectClub use 3D printing to create parts that are used to thermoform clear plastic aligners. Align Technology, the producers of the Invisalign-branded products, use many vat photopolymerization systems from 3D Systems. In 2021, the company reported it had treated more than 10 million patients since receiving FDA clearance in 1998. If an average patient’s treatment includes 10 aligners, which is a low estimate, the company has produced 100 million or more AM parts. VPP parts are difficult to recycle because they are thermoset plastic. SmileDirectClub produces thermoplastic parts using Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) systems from HP and they can be recycled for non-AM applications. 

Historically, VPP has not been capable of producing thin, transparent parts with strength properties for use as dental aligners. In 2021, LuxCreo and Graphy each released a possible solution. As of February, Graphy had received FDA clearance for the direct 3D printing of dental aligners. By printing them directly, the start-to-finish process is believed to be shorter, simpler, and potentially less expensive.

An early-stage development that has received a lot of media attention is the use of 3D printing for large-scale construction applications, such as houses. Typically, the walls of a house are printed using an extrusion process. All other parts of the house are produced using conventional methods and materials, including the floors, ceilings, roof, stairs, doors, windows, appliances, cabinets and countertops. Walls that are 3D printed could add to the expense of installing the electrical, lighting, plumbing, and ducting and vents for heating and air conditioning. Finishing the interior and exterior of concrete walls is more difficult, compared to conventionally constructed wall. Remodeling a home with 3D printed walls is also a consideration.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are studying how it might be possible to store energy in a 3D printed wall. By placing piping into the wall while it is being built, water could run through it for heating and cooling. This R&D project is interesting and innovative, but it is still in an early stage of development.

Most of us do not yet know the economics of 3D printing parts of buildings or other large objects. The technology has been used to produce a few bridges, shelters, park benches, and ornamental elements for buildings and exterior surroundings. It is believed that the benefits of AM at a small scale (centimeters to a few meters) also applies to large-scale 3D printing. The major benefits of using AM include the making of complex shapes and features, reducing part count, reducing material and weight, and improving performance. If AM does not add value, one should question its use.

Year of Acquisitions

AM-related mergers and acquisitions were extensive in 2021 and into this year.

In October 2021, Stratasys acquired the remaining 55 percent of Xaar 3D, a subsidiary of the British industrial inkjet manufacturer Xaar. Stratasys’ polymer PBF technology, called Selective Absorption Fusion, is powered by Xaar inkjet printheads. The H350 machine from Stratasys competes with MJF systems from HP.

Desktop Metal has been on an impressive buying spree. In February 2021, the company acquired Envisiontec, a long-time manufacturer of industrial AM systems. In May 2021, the company acquired Adaptive3D, a developer of elastomeric polymers for VPP. In July 2021, Desktop Metal acquired Aerosint, a developer of a multi-material powder recoating process. The largest acquisition was in August when Desktop Metal acquired ExOne, a competitor, for $575 million. 

Desktop Metal’s acquisition of ExOne brings together two prominent manufacturers of metal BJT systems. Generally, the technology has not yet been adopted at the level many believed it would. Companies continue to address challenges such as repeatability, reliably, and understanding the source of problems when they occur. Even so, the technology has a chance of penetrating large markets, assuming the challenges are resolved. In July 2021, 3DEO, a service provider using proprietary 3D printing systems, reported it had shipped its one millionth part to a customer.

Developers of software and cloud platforms have seen major growth in the AM industry. This is particularly true for management execution systems (MES) that track the AM value chain. 3D Systems agreed to acquire Oqton for $180 million in September 2021. Oqton, founded in 2017, offers a cloud solution for improving AM workflow and efficiency. Materialise acquired Link3D for $33.5 million in November 2021. Like Oqton, Link3D’s cloud platform tracks jobs and streamlines the AM workflow

One of the final acquisitions of 2021 was ASTM International’s purchase of Wohlers Associates. Together, they are working to leverage the Wohlers brand to support a wider adoption of AM worldwide. As a part of the ASTM’s AM Center of Excellence, Wohlers Associates will continue to produce the Wohlers Report and other publications, as well as provide advisory services, market intelligence and training.

The AM industry has matured, with many industrial sectors using the technology for a wide range of applications. But 3D printing will not replace most other forms of manufacturing. Instead, it is being used to create new types of products and business models. Organizations are using AM to remove weight from parts, reduce lead times and tooling costs, and increase personalization and product performance. The AM industry is expected to continue its growth trajectory with an ongoing introduction of new companies, products, services, applications and use cases, often at an astounding rate.

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