Coming off years of hype, 3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) can seem like a promise that was never fulfilled. On the industrial side, 3D printing has been used very effectively for prototyping, but has floundered when it comes to end-use manufacturing. High costs of some materials and a difficulty reconciling quality with production speed have hindered its growth. Wall street skepticism, rooted in the unrealistic expectations of the past, has translated into a lack of funding.
Nevertheless, 72% of companies using 3D printing predict their spending on additive manufacturing will increase in 2018. Strong developments in technology forecast continued growth in the manufacturing sector. Larger corporations like HP are starting to seriously invest in 3D printing and innovator Carbon recently announced they are raising $200 million to bring 3D printing to more manufacturers.
Even with some of its growing pains, 3D printing has been a huge boon to companies when it comes to prototyping and establishing proof of concept. It has proved an invaluable tool for cutting costs and accelerating product development.
In 2018, we predict that additive manufacturing will move beyond prototyping to increasingly incorporate end-use production. With recent technological advancements already generating steam, this could be the year that 3D printing matures beyond the hype and begins to settle into its true potential.
Here are five trends to watch in 2018:
1. Better Software, More Integration
As the additive manufacturing sector expands, related software is evolving to keep up, with a focus on holistic integration of the design and manufacturing process. Last year, we saw a move in this direction when Autodesk released Netfabb, a portfolio that combines both subtractive and additive manufacturing applications into a single package.
Moving into 2018, SOLIDWORKS has released a major update with more additive manufacturing-oriented design features and an integrated, end-to-end solution for the design-to-manufacturing process.
As manufacturing processes adapt to additive approaches, we may also see a growing role for generative design and related software in facilitating the transition. The wholesale replacement of traditionally manufactured parts with identical, 3D printed pieces isn’t cost effective. However, simple design changes tailored to additive manufacturing can open up new possibilities. Costs can be streamlined through consolidation of parts, so that a single piece is printed rather than a multi-part assembly. Generative design techniques and tools, with their capacity to explore myriad iterations based on a given set of parameters, can help explore the possibilities for adaptation.
2. Organic, Wearable Materials
Part of what keeps 3D printing on the cutting edge, despite its ups and downs, is that new materials open up wide avenues of possibility.
This year MIT researchers succeeded in 3D printing genetically programmed bacterial cells, compatible with most hydrogels. Utilizing this breakthrough, they printed 3D “living tattoos” that act as sensors and respond to outside stimuli. While the research is still in early stages, keep an eye out for this technology to evolve in the near future. 3D printed bacteria have potential applications in the medical field as well as in the development of wearable materials and interactive displays.
This past year also saw a major leap forward in the quest to 3D print viable organs: the development of a way to print 3D objects suspended in a near-solid structure. This allows 3D printed organs to “float” and maintain their structure during the printing process. This technology could not only revolutionize the transplant field, but be a huge problem-solver for any project that requires printing complex objects out of soft materials.
In general, watch for more innovations in the 3D printing of organic materials in 2018. As it develops, expect new technology to filter outside the medical sector into areas like consumer electronics and beyond. With the advent of living, wearable computational platforms, the future is truly here.
3. Faster Speeds, Increased Productivity
Until now the majority of 3D printing innovations have focused on improving quality and lowering cost. Production speed has remained a major barrier to widespread, multi-level adoption of additive manufacturing. Recent breakthroughs indicate that the barrier is set to be broken in 2018.
One of the main problems has been the tension between quality and speed. When the speed of 3D printing increases, so does the rate of vibration, causing a reduction in quality. In response to this dilemma, researchers at the University of Michigan have created an algorithm that can reduce the level of vibration as the speed of the printer increases. It allows printers to produce quality results at speeds two times faster than standard. Importantly, it does so with no additional hardware costs.
Simultaneously, engineers at MIT have developed a new desktop 3D printer that outputs ten times faster than existing commercial printers. The polymer material is fed through the print nozzle by a screw mechanism, while being rapidly by a laser, allowing it to flow faster. Objects that would previously have taken hours to print can now be printed in minutes.
In recent years companies like Carbon and 3D Systems have devised innovative polymer manufacturing processes for 3D printing plastic at faster rates than ever before. Both utilize digital light processing, quickly producing products from a pool of resin through the dual application of light and oxygen. And, earlier this year, Desktop Metal debuted a machine that can 3D print metal objects exponentially faster than before.
All of these advancements signal an important shift for 3D printing speeds heading into the New Year. With increased productivity on the horizon, will additive manufacturing finally live up to its promise?
4. Better and Cheaper Metal Printing
Metals are a major frontier in additive manufacturing, particularly when thinking about end-use production. 3D printing metals means not only prototyping but printing objects that will actually go into use. Unfortunately, metals have long been prohibitively costly to print.
This past year, that began to change. In mid-2017, engineering-driven startup Desktop Metal debuted a desktop printer that can reportedly print metal a hundred times faster and ten times cheaper than its current competitors. Going forward, the company is offering two systems: a studio system designed for rapid prototyping and a production system designed for manufacturing. HP followed this past fall when they announced plans to sell 3D printers that produce metal objects. Details are forthcoming in 2018.
What’s more, researchers recently developed a new technique for printing metals that are both strong and ductile (pliable without being brittle). This combination was previously unheard of in the 3D printing realm, where one quality was typically a trade-off for another. With this new development, 3D printed metal parts can be optimized beyond their traditionally manufactured counterparts.
These new developments go leaps and bounds towards making affordable 3D metal printing a reality. Stay open to the growing possibilities in 2018.
5. Mass Customization Goes Mainstream
Mass customization marries the low price point of mass production with the personalized luxury of custom-made products. A trend towards custom offerings has been growing in recent years, and with modern developments in 3D printing technology, mass customization may finally go mainstream.
In 2017, “offering customized products” was one of the top priorities listed by companies surveyed in Sculpteo’s annual State of 3D Printing study. This trend can already be seen in running shoes, where Adidas, Nike, and New Balance have been partnering with tech companies like HP and Carbon to experiment with 3D printing and customization. Starting from collaborations with elite athletes, these corporate visionaries are working to bring custom footwear to the masses, creating unique products tailored to your biomechanical data.
Other examples of mass customization are popping up in the automotive industry. Recently, MINI announced it will offer custom detailing to consumers with the help of 3D printing technology. Customers will have the option to design unique front fender scuttles and dash panels at the MINI dealership, and their design will be transmitted to BMW group’s 3D printing facility in Germany.
From Coca-cola cans to cars, consumers are increasingly demanding personalized experiences. Additive manufacturing has a unique potential to meet those demands, and, with the technology finally catching up, in 2018 it looks like it might succeed.
Heading Into The New Year
As 2017 draws to a close, we’re optimistic about the future of 3D printing in the coming year. Investment in the additive manufacturing sector, coupled with important technological advancements, signal that 3D printing may be set to make big leaps in 2018. We certainly don’t see its influence waning anytime soon.
Cad Crowd is excited to be part of this ever-evolving trend. Our network is home to some of the world’s best designers and engineers, many of whom specialize in 3D printing design. Connecting with us means gaining access to all the tools and expertise needed to create a high-quality product. We also offer contract additive manufacturing services to connect entrepreneurs with expert manufacturers and 3D printers based in the U.S.