3D Printing: Beyond the hype

In collaboration with Additive Manufacturing expert at Sirris, Benjamin Denayer, we’ve outlined some of the main barriers hindering the adoption of 3D printing and ways we can overcome them in the next few years.

by Maarten Buysse, Benjamin Denayer & Ignacio Magallon

Additive manufacturing (AM), perhaps more commonly known as 3D printing (3DP), was coined over 30 years ago. Gradually gaining traction over the years, the real hype surrounding 3D printing didn’t start until around 15 years ago. It was hailed as the groundbreaking technology that would disrupt the manufacturing scene, playing a major role in the 4th industrial revolution and bringing decentralised production to every business and even every household.

After all these years, 3D printing has established itself within the manufacturing ecosystem, consisting of many technologies such as stereolithography, fused deposition modelling and selective laser sintering. Compared to the more conventional subtractive manufacturing techniques, 3D printing has clear benefits; such as design freedom, reduced lead time, customisation, cost-effective production of low volumes and on-demand production. It can also handle materials such as plastics, metals, ceramics and even certain polymer composites. Building on these advantages, 3DP has found its main application and unique selling point within many low-volume and highly complex production processes.

The increasing number of metal 3DP processes is leading the shift from typical prototyping applications in design to full-scale production. However, it’s safe to say that 3D printing has not yet fulfilled its role as the promised holy grail of manufacturing, we are still in the early stages of adoption.

WHAT IS LIMITING THE FURTHER ADOPTION OF 3D PRINTING AT THE MOMENT?

All challenges that hinder companies in their adoption can be split into 4 general categories:

TECHNICAL

As mentioned above, 3DP has clear technical benefits over traditional techniques such as design freedom, short lead time, material savings and others. However, for many other technical aspects, conventional methods still outperform 3DP. To overcome this, the following technical challenges have to be solved:

  • Trade-off between high precision + surface quality and speed of production process + time consuming post-processing
  • Limited selection and combination of materials as well as product size
  • Quality assurance and certification of the production process to improve e.g. residual stresses in products

COST AND AFFORDABILITY

Although 3DP is said to reduce costs by e.g. reducing the need for costly tool design and production, it is currently very difficult to invest in these technologies for many (small and medium-sized) companies because of the following reasons:

  • High cost of printers and materials used to print (especially for metal printing)
  • Extra costs that appear in the production process compared to conventional techniques
  • Extra cost of quality assurance of printed pieces
  • Extra cost of post-processing
  • Extra cost of redesign for AM
  • Extra cost of expensive AM-specific software
  • Lack of different business models to access technology

AWARENESS AND KNOWLEDGE

For many companies, AM is perceived as a disruptive technology but not suitable or necessary for their business. They don’t consider it a potential solution for them due to a lack of understanding of:

  • Technical feasibility within their current production process
  • Opportunities and the potential it can have for their product
  • The business case behind the technology

TRUST AND RISK

Linked to lack of awareness, companies see AM as a risk because they fear the technology is not mature enough. To reduce this risk, the focus will be on:

  • The lack of quality assurance compared to conventional techniques being a critical aspect in the aerospace and automotive industries
  • The lack of safe test environments
  • The lack of employees with experience in AM technologies

WHAT SHOULD BE THE FOCUS IN THE NEXT YEARS TO OVERCOME BARRIERS?

TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENTS

Based on the current technical challenges, extensive research is being conducted and will continue to delve into the following aspects:

  • Increasing and improving material spectrum
  • Increasing printing speed while maintaining quality
  • Increasing production size
  • Advanced simulation of the printing process
  • Automation capabilities

Apart from these more general research topics that aim to increase the range of 3DP applications, process monitoring and testing research will be critical to assure the quality matches or exceeds the quality of conventional processes.

COST-EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS

To make 3DP an affordable and universally accessible alternative to conventional techniques, instead of only focusing on lowering the cost of 3D printers, it’s worth looking into the different business models that could bring 3DP to companies. The most realistic model will be a combination of less critical decentralised production on a company level (e.g. prototypes) and highly specialised production hubs to produce fully functioning high-quality parts. This would result in a choice similar to the current coexistence of basic and affordable ink printers in offices everywhere and the print centres for more advanced and high-quality prints. Lowering the investment barrier to make use of this technology and make 3D printing an affordable service for companies would give them the power to determine which alternative would be the most cost-effective.

The first important step here is to (further) develop these additive manufacturing hubs that will offer affordable 3DP services.

CREATING AWARENESS AND INCREASING TRUST

  • Inform and demonstrate by organising awareness events, showcasing demonstrators and disseminating use cases.
  • Educate and estimate by offering feasibility studies, business model building and AM impact assessments
  • Provide a safe test space to experiment by offering technical training and giving access to facilities and build a prototype together with experts
  • Based on technical developments that focus on quality assurance, AM should be able to offer the same level of quality assurance as other techniques in the near future

3D Printing still has the potential to make a big impact on the entire manufacturing ecosystem but for it to thrive in the future, the focus should not only be on the technical developments but also awareness creation, increasing the trust of companies within the sector and offering them these technologies in an affordable way. One of the most crucial steps to be taken is further research in enabling full chain quality assurance and control, to finally reach European certification of products and processes. It is promising to see that 3DP ecosystem studies and national AM strategies are highlighting similar results and starting to shift the focus in this direction. By successfully combining all these measures, the slow adoption rate of 3D printing will be accelerated.

Originally posted at https://baxcompany.com/insights/ on 12 September 2019.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store