3D printing: mere gadget or real manufacturing revolution?

By August 18, 2016
3D printing: manufacturing revolution

The B2C market for 3D printing is currently in a slump, but the seemingly endless industrial applications of additive layer fabrication technologies are now bringing about a revolution in manufacturing.

According to the bi-annual 3D Printing Spending Guide just released by International Data Corporation (IDC), the 3D printing sector is likely to expand at a 27% compound annual growth rate worldwide, reaching a market value of $26.7 billion by 2019. By way of comparison, turnover in this market totalled $11 billion in 2015. Growth will be led mainly by Western Europe, Asia and the United States. These three regions accounted for 60% of all investment in 3D printing capacity in 2014, a figure that is expected to rise to 70% by 2019. China is moreover on course to become the 3D printing leader in the manufacturing industries, which IDC predicts will deliver the main market growth going forward. “3D printing has been a mainstay in specialised discrete manufacturing markets like automotive and aerospace for many years. However, in just the past three years, lower-priced 3D printers and affordable materials have dramatically widened the market for 3D printing to now enable consumer, education, and healthcare,” explained Christopher Chute, Vice President of IDC’s Consumer Insights and Analysis Group, to 3Dprint.com magazine in January this year.

3D printing firms abandoning the B2C market

However, a glance at developments over the last two years will help us to put these amazing growth predictions into perspective. The share price of the two market leaders in 3D printing, 3D Systems and Stratasys, performed weakly in both 2014 and 2015 due to a lack of traction in the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) market. ‟B2C 3D printing applications have put the technology in the spotlight. Press coverage over the last few years has helped to spread the word about the technology and quite a number of startups in this field have been launched. However, this has aroused high expectations. The machines available on the market today costing several hundred dollars that are designed for personal use show varying degrees of reliability. They may work for several months, sometimes less, and they don’t come with a guarantee. These technical imperfections have been a source of frustration for the consumer and this has in turn has had a real impact on the market. In fact, a number of companies have withdrawn from the B2C market entirely,” points out Julien Rouillac, Lead Industrial Designer at 3D Systems in San Francisco.

Chiffres de l'impression 3D par IDC

Re-kindling competition in the space industry  

3D companies have now, logically enough, begun to switch focus to the potential manufacturing applications of the technology. For instance, the US space industry has seized on additive layer manufacturing (ALM) technology. Since the end of the Cold War, national production of space rockets had been wound down in favour of cheaper imports from Russia. In order to reduce its dependence on Russian rockets, NASA is now making huge investments in state-of-the-art technology combining computer modelling and 3D printing.  To take one example, a gas generator, which takes fifteen months to build using traditional assembly methodology can now be printed out in fifteen days, reducing the overall cost by 70%. ALM techniques also enable substantial reductions in the weight of an item or component, freeing up space for extra payload.

Prostheses: the first use of 3D printing in the medical field

Meanwhile a number of initiatives have emerged in the medical field, especially in the production of artificial limbs (prostheses). Back in 2013, the Mayo Clinic – the world-famous non-profit medical practice and research group based in Rochester, Minnesota – began using 3D printing techniques to create artificial hips. E-nable, a volunteer network set up by US researcher Jon Schull, creates prosthetic hands produced by 3D printers for individual amputees or disabled people. The E-nable network is entirely run by international volunteers who are all committed to spreading the use of 3D printing for medical purposes and thus enabling people to obtain the substitute limbs they need at a relatively low cost. Open Bionics, a Bristol, UK-based startup which has just graduated from US accelerator Disney Research, takes a similar approach to the E-nable network, i.e. an open source approach to creating 3D-printed prosthetic hands.

In the field of medicines, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the authority which regulates food and medicine products across the States, has given its approval for Spritam, a drug made by 3D printing which is used in the treatment of epilepsy, to be placed on the market. Here 3D printing can add considerably to patient convenience, not only making it possible to concentrate a strong dose in a single pill so that the patient does not have to ingest a lot of different medicines, but also enabling the production of a pill that will dissolve easily in the mouth with just a little drop of water, which makes it easier to swallow the quantity required.

3D Systems investit largement le secteur médical

3D Systems investing heavily in the medical sector

A revolution for the entire medical sector?

Today these trends are firming up. Julien Rouillac underlines that surgery, in particular surgical planning, is today the most promising area for additive manufacturing, followed closely by dentistry. ‟With 3D printing, we’re able to recreate tools to make ultra-precise bone cuts, and we can also work on microscopic elements such as DNA sequences.” 3D printing is also helping to meet the challenge of customised healthcare. This new technology makes light of the difficulties encountered when traditional industrial methods are used, enabling unique, one-off parts and items for individual bodies to be made very quickly. “Reconstructing a human face is a very arduous surgical operation for the patient and usually requires several specialists to be present. It’s quite hard to get such experts together at any one time, but with 3D printing, once the patient’s face has been scanned, we can create tailored clamps which allow the parts of the new face to be held together. The technology also enables all types of surgeons to train so as to achieve the dexterity needed for this type of operation,” he explains.

Meanwhile Californian startup Biobots is now working on the 3D printing of live tissue, but a number of US observers, including Anthony Atala, Lead Designer at 3D Systems, are less bullish on this front: “Working with live tissue means coming up against the regulatory authorities, first and foremost the FDA. It will take five to ten years before these technologies can come to market. We can only hope that investment funds will be willing to support these startups over the long term so that they can bring their initiatives to fruition.”

Benefits for the automobile, energy and restaurant sectors

3D printing has already made its mark in the automobile sector, starting with Formula 1 niche manufacturing. 3D printing techniques enable the creation of lighter, higher-performance engines. “The technology is particularly suited to the needs of Formula 1 as the various teams set up one-off models of their cars for each race,” explains Julien Rouillac. For the moment, mass market cars have not yet seen the benefits of additive manufacturing but it will not be long before they do. Renault is already using the technology for crash testing, which has always been a very costly side of carmaking. “Cars are becoming increasingly resilient and at the same time becoming fully electronic. Today you need a computer to be able to repair a recent model of a damaged car, whereas in the past you could just do it yourself. Very soon repair garages are likely to have their own 3D printers so as to be able to make some replacement parts themselves,” predicts the 3D Systems designer.

3D printing allows you to create complex parts in a single piece, doing away with the assembly phase, which can be a big plus in the energy industry as well. “3D printing processes simple and complex forms in exactly the same way. If you can print out the entire spare part in one go, instead of having several separate items that then have to be put together, you save time on the work. In the energy sector, this can also for instance avoid the need for risky work at nuclear power stations,” Rouillac points out.

 Desiree Pfeiffer)

Necklace from a collection of 3D printed jewellery, Julien & Desirée (Photo: Desirée Pfeiffer)

In fact 3D printing enables substantial cost reductions in a variety of manufacturing areas. In the field of ophthalmology, instead of cutting lenses by hand and then assembling the frame and lenses manually, additive techniques can be used not only to print out lenses of the right size and thickness but to make a pair of spectacles in its entirety in one go. “3D printing covers the entire production chain, making a pair of spectacles in a single continuous piece. You can also make glasses to suit a person’s face,” Julien Rouillac points out, adding: With the latest 3D Systems printer, you’ll be able to print a pair of glasses every minute with a resolution of 24 microns.”

Not least, additive layer manufacturing enables players in some industrial sectors to explore new creative horizons using a range of different materials. Jewellery is a perfect candidate. Working with fashion photographer Desirée Pfeiffer, Julien Rouillac has created a collection of entirely 3D-printed jewellery.

Meanwhile, in the restaurant business, ALM technology offers the promise of creating new textures. Says Rouillac: “We’re working with some top ‘starred’ chefs to develop new products with the aim of creating brand new culinary experiences. Sugar and chocolate, for example, are ideal ingredients for creating 3D printed sculptures. For the agro-food industry we’re working on making chocolate-based sweets using 3D printing to create a confection layer by layer. The main goal here is to reduce production costs. The agro-food industry hasn’t changed much since the last industrial revolution and 3D printing could trigger some real change. But first of all we have to ensure that these products conform to health regulations,” he stresses.


Remaining challenges

So it seems that 3D printing offers some promising applications right across industry. However, challenges still remain. Today the cost of a 3D printer varies between $50,000 and several million. Purchasing one of these machines therefore represents a substantial investment for a firm, and that decision requires careful thought. Julien Rouillac stresses that “at 3D Systems, we talk with the customer to assess whether 3D printing is the best manufacturing method from a business point of view before advising the company to buy. 3D printing must be regarded as a means of producing complex forms in a fast, repetitive manner. If the technique can meet the precise needs of a manufacturer and help to achieve economies of scale, then the investment will be justified”.

Speed of execution, which is an essential element in industrial production, plus precision and high quality in the printout, are all areas where 3D printing still needs to improve. In addition, the types of material printed out could also be an area for change: “Today, using stereolithography (SLA) technology, we’re able to produce a material that’s similar to plastic. But some of our commercial partners want us to re-create materials that are being made today in the traditional way,” reveals the 3D Systems Lead Industrial Designer.

Julien Rouillac believes that the next major hurdle for 3D printing lies in designing the printer to be able to create items that have both soft and hard surfaces in a single process. The textile industry – first and foremost the lingerie business! – could be the first to benefit from such an approach.

To sum up, it appears that the early B2C market for 3D printers has to some extent given the technology the image of a mere gadget with limited advantages. However, its applications in the automobile, space, medical, textile and agro-food industries are proving a boon for companies in those sectors. Moreover, quite apart from the financial impact, 3D printing is opening up additional potential for creativity and giving rise to whole new ways of thinking about product design and manufacture.


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