Industry stakeholders (and a bot) predict key AM trends in 2023
A conversation HP, Seurat, Materialise, Fathom, Jabil... and an AI
Making predictions on the future of AM is not overly difficult. The industry is going to grow. It’s going to grow because it cannot be otherwise. It is still too young, too small, too fast, and its potential too large, not to grow. Understanding exactly which parts of the overly wide AM industry will grow and what will be the key AM trends in 2023 is a bit more difficult. Much like a doctor that can only give an opinion that is connected with his or her own area of expertise on a particular condition, each industry stakeholder identifies different segments as the ones with the biggest potential. Large companies must look at macro trends. AM startups tend to look at rapidly changing global dynamics. AM service providers look at adoption and automation while software providers look at workflows and data security. We listened to selected leading industry players to highlight some key trends we should expect in the coming year. To add a new element we also compared their forecasts with the predictions made by the ChatGPT AI chatbot. Just like the chatbot said at the beginning of our chat, all forecasts must be based on an analysis of current and ongoing trends.
According to François Minec, Global Head, Polymers 3D Printing at HP, 3D printing has proven itself as a reliable, stable, and exciting method of manufacturing in the face of many global challenges during 2022. Other key trends identified include an acceleration on topics that emerged over the past few years, including the increased focus on sustainability, supply chain resiliency and automation. According to Fathom Digital Manufacturing‘s CEO Ryan Martin, commercial travel will come back to pre-pandemic levels, while Materialise’s CEO Wilfried Vancraen and Jabil’s Jesse Sumstad both emphasized that price reductions along with increased automation and security will hold the key to breaking down the barriers that are still associated with adopting AM technology as part of an industrial manufacturing process.
Personalization, driving down cost and increasing automation
Mr. Minec’ focuses on the increased adoption of AM for customization across consumer segments. The growth in the use of AM for actual mass production in areas such as eyewear, sportswear and footwear (even textiles) is a trend that many AM companies are betting on, especially some hardware manufacturers. “In 2023, the technology will gain ground across key industries off the back of increased demand for personalized goods in today’s competitive markets – Minec says – offering exciting, hyper-personalized products and experiences will be the benchmark for competition, creating opportunities for even more brands to explore new manufacturing methods with 3D printing.”
The adoption of AM for consumer products is inextricably connected with the ability to increase workflow automation while reducing the overall cost of 3D printing. The story of 3D printing is a story of added value. 3D printing enables design optimizations that provide performance, weight saving, time, and supply chain benefits that are impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods.
Materialise’s Wilfried Vancraen, highlights that “several factors determine the cost of 3D printing parts, including the materials required, production time per part, and the type of printer. [One way] to do this is by working more efficiently to increase production capacity. Software plays a major role in this, by making it possible to optimize the build. We can also tune the printing process to make it more efficient and repeatable. 3D printing continues to transform the factory floor as companies increasingly turn to this technology for large-scale production. But to accelerate this adoption, our industry will have to make extra efforts to reduce the cost of 3D printing in 2023.”
3D printing is a digital manufacturing technology, but it still requires a considerable amount of human intervention. And these skilled workers are increasingly hard to find. A recent survey cited by Materialise indicated that recruiting a workforce with the necessary expertise is the top challenge for companies that are already using or considering 3D printing.
With 3D printing, Manufacturers that plan to scale up the production of a 3D printed part into the thousands or millions need to optimize and fine-tune their unique printing process to make it efficient, reliable, and repeatable across multiple production sites,” Vancraen says adding that “a smart production process ensures that all 3D printed components have the same quality, no matter where they are produced. Creating such a process is complex and time-consuming – he states – but it allows companies to leap ahead of the competition. Vancraen also goes on to predict that “data integrity will become top of mind for companies embracing digital manufacturing in addition to data security.”
In spite of many challenges, Minec argues that the benefits of mass personalization and AM’s unique ability to deliver mass-customized goods will be a driver of AM adoption. “Mass personalization has proven difficult with more traditional methods of manufacturing, but with 3D printing, it is flexible, cost-effective and fast,” Minec says. “From footwear to orthotics to sporting equipment such as climbing shoes, golf clubs or ski goggles. No matter which specific industry, businesses that embrace the need for mass personalization will be able to drive creativity and innovation across the entire customer journey, leaving customers surprised and wanting more.
At the same time, scaling up industrial 3D printing production into the thousands or millions requires a repeatable and consistent printing process. These two challenges increase the need for automation.
In recent years, software enabled the automation of various stages of the 3D printing process: from preparing and fixing files to generating support structures, optimizing the stacking of objects into a build, or even post-processing. But these are all individual processes.
In 3D printing, these different processes follow one another, coming together to create a complete digital manufacturing process. The promise of large-scale, industrial 3D printing requires us to automate each process but also the flow between them. Materialise refers to this concept, which 3dpbm has been also been highlighting in its publications for several years, as workflow automation.
The ability to meet this need is growing, thanks to the creation of software platforms that allow manufacturers to define their own unique 3D printing process. Several companies now offer these solutions to customers, allowing them to automate not just the individual 3D printing processes but the entire 3D printing workflow, from order intake to delivery and everything in between.
Jesse Sumstad, Senior Product Manager, Jabil Additive, sums it up highlighting how “over the past year, additive manufacturing has seen an uptick in volume serial production of final parts. While prototyping and tooling still rank high on the list of AM applications, it’s clear that the production of end-use parts is growing, along with the availability of rigorous manufacturing processes and Quality Management Systems (QMS) to ensure the highest levels of part reliability, resiliency and robustness.” Sumstad expects expansion of AM use in 2023, especially for applications where Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) is being utilized to design parts. “Additionally – he says – as the costs of additive manufacturing continue to come down, the ability to compete with injection molding increases, resulting in more viable uses for AM to manufacture end-use parts.”
Metal AM growth across industrial adoption segments
While consumer products will certainly be a key focus area for mostly polymer 3D printing (but also a driver for some faster and more affordable metal 3D printing), areas such as aerospace, automotive and medical devices are a key driver of metal 3D printing adoption. In fact, when asked what it thought the most relevant key 3D printing trends would be for 2023 the first one ChatGPT mentions is the advance of metal 3D printing technology.
“One trend that has gained significant attention in recent years is the increasing use of metal 3D printing,” it says, botsplaining that “metal 3D printing involves using a 3D printer to create objects from metal powders or metal-based inks.” The bot also agrees that “this technology has the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing industry by allowing for the production of complex metal parts with minimal waste and low cost.”
The bot goes on to give a general although accurate overview of key adoption segments for AM. “In addition to the technological developments – it argues – there has also been a trend towards the increased adoption of 3D printing in a variety of industries. Companies in the aerospace, automotive, and healthcare sectors have been exploring the use of 3D printing to produce lightweight parts, custom prosthetics, and even entire aircraft. There has also been a trend towards the use of 3D printing in the production of personalized products, such as customized jewelry and clothing.”
Getting more into the specifics of what this means, Fathom CEO Ryan Martin points out that the development of new generations of EVs is driving the use of digital manufacturing in the automotive segment. “Tesla is still the leader, but Ford, GM, and other early-stage EV manufacturers like Rivian and Lucid are all making significant inroads into this still early-stage market,” he observes. “Almost every automotive company now has an electric vehicle strategy and looking to accelerate production and get their products to market to capture the increasing demand. Looking to embrace Industry 4.0 digital manufacturing processes to drive advanced, more effective, efficient manufacturing processes.”
Martin is also bullish about the aerospace segment, saying that “you will see demand for new Boeing and Airbus planes continue to increase as many of the major airlines defer aircraft fleet refreshes over the last couple of years.” He also points out that “there’s a tremendous number of additive or 3D printed components going not only into the jet engines but into the aircraft’ interiors. The aerospace companies are early adopters and will continue to lean in very heavily on additive manufacturing to support the increased demand and innovation that is necessary for them to support their customers.”
In order for this to happen, Vancraen says that tools must be used to improve quality while reducing the cost of AM parts. “Quality comes at a cost, he says, adding that when looking at certified manufacturing in the medical or aeronautics industry, for example, we see that up to 70% of the production cost is in quality control.”
Both Fathom and Materialise continue to see very high potential in medical industry applications. “The potential is real. Even in the highly regulated and certified medical industry, hospitals are increasingly turning to 3D printing to produce medical models and personalized implants at the point of care, closer to the patient: the medical equivalent of a decentralized industrial production model,” says Mr. Vancraen pointing out that, just like in the consumer products industry, “workflow automation is needed to address the dramatic increase of customized 3D printed solutions.”
Sustainability is here to stay
Another trend that all the interviewees agree on, including ChatGPT, is one that should no longer be considered a trend as much as a necessity, that is the importance placed on sustainability. HP surveys found that consumers altered their purchasing behaviors throughout the pandemic to be more climate-conscious, and now the onus is on companies to do the same. This goes beyond goal setting and virtue signaling, but actually putting in the work and getting results. Additive manufacturing is seen as a pioneering technology in this respect, as it is more sustainable than the traditional methods of manufacturing and promotes the reduction of waste, carbon emissions, recycling and reusing, to name a few. Take the packaging industry, for example, where additive manufacturing allows for more innovative and more sustainable solutions by increasing access to options like molded fiber technology, a biodegradable plastic alternative.
“We expect that in the year ahead – Minec says – with the increased importance of sustainability and climate action as well as public awareness of these issues, more businesses will try to implement more sustainable practices and solutions powered by 3D printing technology and the circular economy it enables. 2023 is the perfect storm for 3D printing adoption, and we expect the industry to continue to grow, as companies break free from traditional supply chains and disrupt industries with breakthrough applications.”
Seurat CEO James DeMuth, who, among other things, worked at the NIF facility that recently announced a major breakthrough in energy generation via nuclear fusion (which is the only possible long-term solution the challenge of sustainable energy), argues that manufacturing can and should be part of a decarbonization strategy. “As the U.S. looks to build its own resilient supply chains – he says – there is a rare opportunity for a win-win situation: economic and environmental gains at the same time. The chance for manufacturing to make environmental improvements is large; the EPA reported in 2018 that industry accounted for 22% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As renewable energy continues to become more cost-competitive, manufacturing processes that utilize clean energy – like additive manufacturing, which runs on electricity – will flourish.
“In addition to reducing our environmental impact, green manufacturing gives businesses a competitive edge,” DeMuth continues. “As ESG climate-disclosure reporting standards come into effect in 2023, manufacturers will need to closely evaluate their materials, suppliers and processes, and make a shift toward more sustainable choices for every step of production. 6K and IperionX are examples of those innovating by scaling up novel production processes based in the US.
“The industry-wide desire to decarbonize is strong, but implementation lacks. A recent global survey found that 85% of organizations are concerned about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, yet only 11% have cut their emissions in line with their ambitions over the past five years. Shifting to cleaner manufacturing methods, including transitioning from casting to additive manufacturing powered by renewables, is a clear path to sizable emissions reductions,” DeMuth concludes.
ChatGPT summarizes these views by focusing on the increasing use of sustainable materials in AM, along with the process. “Another trend that has emerged in recent years – the chatbots says – is the increasing use of sustainable materials in 3D printing. There has been a push to develop biodegradable and recycled materials for use in 3D printing, as well as to reduce the environmental impact of the 3D printing process itself.”
Sustainability and especially the sustainability of materials is a key element in Jabil’s strategy as well. “ “Additive manufacturing processes need to be eco-friendly too,” says Jabil’s Jesse Sumstad, adding that while a lot of focus is on the development of sustainable, recyclable materials, the company expects to see this broaden to encompass demands for more eco-friendly processes and 3D printing platforms. “Technical feasibility and research into more sustainable processes and machine platforms need to be addressed over the next 12-to-18 months as part of all-encompassing circular economy initiatives,” Sumstad says.
Sumstad also expects significant growth in pellet-based 3D printing, something that is aligned with 3dpbm’s own Polymer AM report as interest in pellet printers is growing alongside the availability of pellet-based materials for making large parts based on the favorable economics of this type of 3D printing. “Continued expansion in this area is on the horizon, particularly for applications involving large-scale castings and patterns,” Sumstad says. Another material-related prediction from Jabil is that “the push is on for customized materials as companies recognize opportunities to achieve extra ductility, flexibility and agility with materials tailored for specific applications. “In particular – Sumstad notes – growing interest in polyketone-based materials is being driven by the need for high degrees of impact strength while being resistant to most fuels and fuel additives. As a result, this type of engineered material is ideally suited for fuel-tank applications.”
Unpredictable supply chains
The final topic that emerged is the continued challenges brought on by the unpredictability of supply chains driving the ongoing need for reshoring and distributed manufacturing. “With supply chain disruptions expected to carry into 2023 (and beyond), the ability to overcome these disruptions before and as they happen will be a vital competitive edge,” DeMuth argues. “Localization of manufacturing near to customers will reduce economic and environmental costs. Currently, the cost to ship a 40 ft container from Asia to the US west coast is 5 times more than pre-pandemic levels. Unpredictable policymaking and inflationary pressures will have less impact on companies that strategically place manufacturing of key components within the US and near to assembly plants.
“Creating technology that allows high-precision, cost-competitive, scalable alternatives to be manufactured locally also removes the incentives for offshore manufacturing. Localized manufacturing builds resilience and redundancy as business offerings. DeMuth continues.
This kind of distributed approach to manufacturing is not just a US-based trend. Materialise, which is a European company, also argues that it is important for manufacturing to become more distributed in order to address supply chain disruptions. And that now it can happen. “Traditionally, manufacturing has always centered on a single location — usually a factory overseas, Vancraen says. In the last few years, the Corona crisis has crippled factories and disrupted supply chains. Geo-political tensions have risen along with increased environmental concerns. All of this has made manufacturing companies rethink this centralized production model.
“With smart, digital technologies like 3D printing, manufacturers can make the shift to operating through multiple smaller-scale production sites that sit closer to their customers, Vancraen continues. “However, many of distributed manufacturing’s recent success stories have come from quick thinking in the face of a short-term need, like turning to existing, local 3D printing lines to produce emergency medical supplies during the Corona crisis. 3D printing was used reactively — a temporary replacement.
“These solutions did, however, spark new conversations about the future of manufacturing. We can see that many companies are ready to adopt a more strategic approach. They will need to carefully consider which applications provide the most value in terms of supply chain efficiency or environmental sustainability. This requires a change in mindset: a shift away from short-term solutions and towards using 3DP for the sustainable production of certified end-use parts,” Vancraen concludes.
CNH, an agricultural machinery company, is an ideal example of this. Luigi Neirynck, Plant Director at CNH Industrial Zedelgem, explained that during the pandemic, CNH relied on 3D printing to produce a vital part that they couldn’t source due to Covid-related shipping restrictions. Now, the company is taking a more strategic look at how 3D printing can help manage its supply chains more cost-efficiently.
In the end, smart distributed manufacturing, enabled by 3D printing and when done strategically, can be a successful strategy in its own right, rather than an ad hoc response to problems with global supply chains.