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Integration, expansion and smarter factories: AM in 2024

Leaders from hardware and service companies across the entire AM spectrum speak with VoxelMatters about what the short term future holds

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The time has come to start unwrapping the new year and look at what it may have in store for the additive manufacturing industry. We’ve asked several industry operators, leaders and pioneers for their opinion regarding the opportunities offered by AM in 2024 and they have identified several key areas, from technology integration to new material and smarter factories. Many agreed that AI is going to be playing a role in advancing AM so it felt fair to ask an AI for its opinion as well. ChatGPT also identified several key trends for AM that are likely to continue in the new year but it also made it very clear that an AI by itself can only help us with general observations and no AI can replace expert human analysis (yet).

These are the trends that Chat GPT identified as the most relevant and likely to continue in 2024

  • Increased adoption: Additive manufacturing has been growing steadily, and its adoption will likely continue to increase in various sectors such as aerospace, healthcare, automotive, and consumer goods.
  • Advancements in materials: Researchers and companies are constantly developing new materials for 3D printing, which can expand the range of applications and improve the quality of printed objects. In 2024, we might see even more innovative materials being used.
  • Larger and faster printers: As technology advances, 3D printers may become larger, faster, and more efficient, allowing for the production of larger and more complex parts in a shorter amount of time.
  • Sustainability: Sustainability is a growing concern in manufacturing, and there may be an increased focus on environmentally friendly materials and processes in the additive manufacturing industry. This could include developments in recycling or bio-based materials.
  • Customization and personalization: One of the strengths of 3D printing is its ability to create customized and personalized products. In 2024, we may see a broader range of industries leveraging this capability to cater to individual customer needs.
  • Regulatory changes: Governments and regulatory bodies may introduce new regulations or standards for additive manufacturing, especially in sectors like healthcare and aerospace, where safety and quality are critical.
  • Integration with other technologies: Additive manufacturing may continue to integrate with other emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and blockchain for improved design, monitoring, and supply chain management.

Smarter factories on the way to production

Human AM industry stakeholders can provide a more detailed assessment of what the future holds for AM. Most outlooks focus on how the factory floor is going to change with increasing AM adoption. According to Xometry AI is the key to modernizing the manufacturing industry and manufacturing CEOs say AI will play a significant role in their company in the next one to two years. Of the CEOs who have already implemented AI, more than 70% have seen a significant ROI in key areas such as supply chain management, quality control and procurement.

But AI or not, it all starts from the factory floor. “In manufacturing, the often-overlooked heartbeat is the factory floor, where intricate processes unfold to bring consumer goods to life,” says Tripp Burd, Sr. Manager, Strategic Application Engineering at Markforged. “The introduction of advanced technologies emphasizes the critical need for innovation in this space. As consumers demand more and supply chain disruptions persist, the factory floor becomes the nexus for solutions that not only meet burgeoning demands but also tackle the challenges posed by frequent disruptions.”

Makrforged 3D printers.

“Integrated hardware and software – he continues – will stand as a testament to drive for resilience on the factory floor. By empowering manufacturers and OEMs to produce precise components on demand and reducing reliance on traditional manufacturing methods, these cutting-edge solutions will become vital tools in navigating through delays and challenges in the broader supply chain. The convergence of these innovative approaches on the factory floor is essential for ensuring not just the efficiency of production but also the adaptability required in today’s rapidly changing industrial landscape.”

Dr. Jeffrey Graves, President & CEO of 3D Systems.

Jeffrey A Graves, 3D Systems‘ CEO, agrees that AM’s ability to accelerate innovation will play a key role in consumer goods. “As the barriers to entry have become lower, the adoption of AM as a production technology continues to accelerate. This is becoming abundantly apparent in the durable consumer goods industry where AM was once viewed only as an enabler for prototyping which could shorten product development,” he comments.

“As we move into 2024, I anticipate many consumer goods manufacturers will continue integrating AM into production workflows for many applications, especially in the electronics industry. Consumers continue to seek out the latest technologies that help facilitate how they both communicate and manage their personal lives. AM’s ability to catalyze the pace at which companies innovate will not only enable faster product development times but also enable the development of products that push the possibility of what can be delivered to give consumers never-before-imagined capabilities.

Across industries, Graves anticipates that the integration of AM for production applications will continue to make important strides in helping to mitigate supply chain disruption. “Industry-leading manufacturers continue to realize that AM enables them to take control of their supply chains by manufacturing locally. This in turn helps reduce costs by reducing the number of suppliers and removing the need for costly logistics providers to move components across geographies. This also has the potential to positively impact the environment by minimizing manufacturers’ carbon footprints,” he concludes.

For Bart Van der Schueren, Chief Technology Officer at Materialise, there will be a divided path to 3D printing production among manufacturers. The company expects two clearly defined paths to co-exist depending on customers’ needs. The first, more traditional model of working with service bureaus for quick, cost-efficient printing will continue to thrive through production for prototypes and other one-off parts.

Integration, expansion and smarter factories: AM in 2024. Leaders from companies across the entire AM spectrum speak with VoxelMatters
Bart Van der Schueren, Chief Technology Officer at Materialise

However, with 3D printing’s use growing in production, it’s likely more manufacturers will shift toward bringing 3D printing knowledge in-house to produce end-use parts at scale. If manufacturers can bridge the knowledge gap, this second path will help innovators design for AM and optimize unique 3D printing processes for their specific applications.

Matteo Carola, Country Manager Italy at Protolabs, looks even more specifically at the role that technologies such as AI, 5G and IoT will increasingly play in 2024. “We will witness a greater transition towards smart factories, with increased integration of AI, 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, and cloud computing,” he explains. This will result in benefits such as cost reduction, improved product quality, enhanced security, and sustainability.

“2023 was a record year for 3D printer installations – Carola adds – and the market is set to benefit from the efficiency, speed, and accessibility that AI will bring. Prototyping remains the primary application of 3D printing, but we are witnessing an increase in the production of end-use parts, especially with additive manufacturing of metals (AM), which means it will continue to grow as a full-fledged production method.

The applications of Artificial Intelligence are expected to further improve, enabling the detection and correction of errors before they occur, saving time and enhancing safety. Specific programs like ChatGPT simplify the design process through voice commands, rather than requiring coding for programming the geometric complexities of a project,” Carola points out.

Mighty Buildings’ CEO Scott Gebicke.

AI and AM are not however expected to take away jobs. Construction 3D printing company Mighty Buildings’ CEO Scott Gebicke says that “we won’t yet see AI affect jobs onsite or in the factory.” Rather, “we’ll see new tools to support workers, but nothing that will rapidly shift the labor force that is actively doing the building. The integration of AI tools will focus on improving efficiency, safety, and decision-making processes, complementing the skills of on-site and factory workers.”

Manufacturing was on the cusp of a labor crisis even before COVID-19. Now going on four years post-pandemic, the manufacturing job market has improved according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and there remains a shortage of over 600,000 manufacturing jobs waiting to be filled. CEOs remain worried about attracting highly skilled talent as American manufacturing becomes more high-tech. According to Xometry’s own research, more than half (56%) of CEOs said they struggle to find qualified employees in today’s tight labor market.

A shared, distributed and sustainable economy

Others point out AM’s potential to create a more shared, distributed and sustainable economy. According to a Xometry survey, reshoring will continue to trend upwards with 76% of manufacturing CEOs having successfully reshored some or all of their operations throughout 2023 – a move accelerated by federal tax incentives and initiatives such as “Build America, Buy America.”

Integration, expansion and smarter factories: AM in 2024. Leaders from companies across the entire AM spectrum speak with VoxelMatters
Shai Terem, President and CEO of Markforged

For Shai Terem, CEO of Markforged, “The intersection of manufacturing and the sharing economy is poised to redefine traditional production models and reshape the industrial landscape as a peer-to-peer model. Facilities with parts in inventory are ideal resources for other OEMs to use. Keeping an extensive physical inventory ties up capital in parts that may go untouched for years.”

The ability to transform parts into collaborative production hubs will pave the way for the future of distributed manufacturing. This involves integrating 3D printing with a digitized platform, allowing parts to be uploaded and printed at the time and point of need without the need to be manufactured in advance, shipped, and stored until needed.

Terem concludes that the result will be a move away from mass production towards more personalized, on-demand manufacturing and delivery of end-to-end process control. “The future of manufacturing in the sharing economy market – he argues – will create a more sustainable and connected ecosystem after years of manufacturers feeling divided by the pandemic and supply chain disruptions.”

Henrike Wonneberger, Co-founder and COO of Replique, believes that 2024 will be the year to reduce tied-up capital to stay competitive. “Companies have to analyze processes that are not efficient,” he says. “This involves a critical analysis of inefficient processes, with a keen focus on minimizing storage costs, which often constitute up to 20% of overall part expenses. Evolving to a digital warehouse with on-demand manufacturing can be a huge opportunity. That eliminates the necessity for extensive physical inventories, ensuring that businesses can adapt to economic fluctuations swiftly and efficiently.”

Integration, expansion and smarter factories: AM in 2024. Leaders from companies across the entire AM spectrum speak with VoxelMatters
Henrike Wonneberger, Co-founder and COO of Replique

Wonneberger continues: “[This] also enables companies to produce decentral via a connected production network – just when parts are needed without minimum order quantities. This approach leads to higher flexibility and cost-efficiency, as well as a more sustainable supply chain. The success of this platform hinges on its fulfilment of industrial standards, emphasizing not only data security but, most importantly, data integrity. Uniforming quality across parts, regardless of their production location, will be a key consideration.”

Manufacturing products as close as possible to the point of use has multiple advantages. Firstly, it addresses the need for greater sustainability by avoiding long journeys of parts and products, and it helps organizations manage supply chain uncertainty. While not always feasible due to resources, expertise, and supplies, working with local facilities or suppliers allows companies to be more flexible and responsive to changing customer needs and market trends. Matt Carola of Protolabs believes that manufacturers will increasingly adopt a hybrid approach that involves both a centralized facility and a network of more local facilities to meet their needs.

“Following the pandemic, with ongoing uncertainty about supply routes and energy sources due to recent geopolitical tensions, there is a growing phenomenon known as ‘friend-shoring’ – Carola says – where countries move their supply chains and production to a country with similar values and culture. In our research, 55% of those exploring supply chain restructuring have focused on friend-shoring.

Integration, expansion and smarter factories: AM in 2024. Leaders from companies across the entire AM spectrum speak with VoxelMatters
Matteo Carola, Country Manager Italy at Protolabs

Vertical consolidation is also becoming a way to overcome supply chain challenges, particularly in the aerospace sector. Organizations want greater control over the quality and capacity level of the supply chain, especially with emerging technologies like hydrogen. Both options mean that companies want to be sure about the source of energy, occupational ethics, and recycling and waste disposal standards.

And that brings us to the topic of sustainability in manufacturing. Many companies are increasingly focusing on a net-zero emissions future and taking proactive action to limit their greenhouse gas emissions across their industrial supply chains. According to the Xometry survey mentioned earlier, “Fifty-two percent of CEOs view climate change as an existential threat caused by human activity.” The company expects that 2024 will see the actualization of companies making sustainability a business goal with more investment in measuring and tracking tools to prioritize decarbonization of their operations.

Scott Gebicke, CEO of Mighty Buildings, brings his point of view concerning the rapidly growing segment of construction 3D printing. Looking at general concerns, he expects that water conservation and embodied carbon will take center stage in sustainability conversations, as extreme weather events grow in frequency. “Energy efficiency has been the focus of conversations, regulations, and incentives in recent years – he says – however, the impact of embodied carbon (the materials we use to build) and water conservation are becoming clearer, and we expect to see a surge in financial, insurance, and regulatory incentives aimed at promoting water conservation and sustainable materials. Notable legislative actions in 2023 set the precedent: Florida introduced significant tax credits for greywater systems (under statute 220.199); Arizona implemented restrictions on new building permits in areas lacking adequate groundwater; Europe is requiring stricter emissions reporting from large companies.”

The factory floor at Materialise.

Getting back to the world of industrial manufacturing, Protolabs’ Matteo Carola sees sustainability as still a top priority in the manufacturing industry, both concerning organizations’ processes and the products they create.

“Sectors such as aerospace, automotive, and energy have legislative goals to achieve, such as reaching Net Zero by 2050,” he says, “so much of their product development is focused on decarbonization and the incorporation of ultra-efficient technologies. Our study of 450 manufacturing industry executives demonstrates that sustainability is a key driver of innovation and a fundamental reason why manufacturers develop new products. Digital manufacturing plays an important role as it enables localized production and reduces waste.”

New opportunities for AM in 2024

So what does it all boil down to? What will smarter, more distributed, and more sustainable AM factories be used to produce in 2024? Reji Puthenveetil  EVP, Industrial Solutions at 3D Systems, argues that AM is already demonstrating its ability to transform manufacturing workflows for a variety of industrial applications. “We continue to see advancements in casting and aerospace, as well as oil and gas. However, as we enter 2024, I believe we’re going to see AM play an increasingly important role in two industries – semiconductors and durable consumer goods. Semiconductor lithography and wafer processing equipment require constant innovation to meet the accuracy, speed, reliability, and productivity demands of increasingly complex microchip production. Additionally, the continual need for increased quality improved total cost of ownership, reduced time to market, and minimized supply chain disruption persists.”

Among other key developments, while the automotive industry is primed for growth and innovation in 2024, EV manufacturers may be taking their foot off of the accelerator when it comes to electric vehicles. Xometry’s Automotive Survey found that 84% of automotive executives said current production timelines and waning consumer demand may make it difficult for the industry to meet the Biden Administration’s goals for the year ahead. Among auto executives’ chief concerns: are battery innovation, charger compatibility and slowing consumer adoption, according to the survey.

Reji Puthenveetil, EVP of Industrial Solutions at 3D Systems.

According to Protolabs’ Report on the State of Robotic Production 2023, soft robotics and new materials will have the greatest impact on the development of robotic production in the next five years. Soft robotics, such as grippers that enable robots to perform more logistical tasks, are expected to experience a compound annual growth rate of 35.1% between 2022 and 2027, with benefits for biomedicine, food, and agriculture. The use of new materials and technologies requires various iterations for testing and refinement, which is why digital manufacturing becomes a key element in accelerating the development cycle. Protolabs Matteo Carola expects an upsurge of new materials being introduced in modeling systems, a process known as 4D printing. By using reactive materials that respond to external elements like heat, light, humidity, electric current, or pressure, 4D-printed objects can change shape or properties. For example in the aerospace industry 4D printed drone wings that can bend up to 20 degrees in response to stimuli, significantly improving efficiency. In Medtech, 4D printed implants that adapt to the patient’s body over time. Smart fabrics could regulate their breathability based on humidity and hydraulic system components that expand or contract in response to temperature fluctuations.

In more short term, Materialise CTO Bart Van der Schueren expects a rise in mid-range printer technologies to reach a new customer segment in the coming year. “While machine offerings have traditionally fallen in either the hobbyist or industrial category – he says – mid-range printers tuned to excel in an application range between these two can open new doors for 3D printing parts such as tools and jigs in the automotive industry.

Finally, as we look ahead to 2024, Henrike Wonneberger of Replique, expects that the AM industry is poised for growth and maturation. “We are observing a growing awareness among companies regarding the significance of 3D printing, and it is about time for its seamless integration as a primary production method for small to mid-volume series, starting right from the initial design phase.

“Notably – he adds – among the existing service providers, a trend towards market consolidation is evident. Centralized platforms are expected to play a key role, offering companies a unified interface for various services—addressing the industry’s challenge of fragmentation. This move towards decentralization aims not only for scalability but also a more collaborative, transparent, and efficient supply chain.”

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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