Do we dare predict? Remember, very few, in anyone, predicted a global pandemic in 2020. With the understanding that just about anything can happen, let’s give it a go.
Occasionally, a technology or development has an opportunity to really grab attention. This opportunity happened to additive manufacturing last year when the pandemic shut down global supply chains for a while and additive technology was used to fill in those gaps in the supply of needed products, especially medical protection products.
According to many CEOs in the additive industry that I have interviewed, their counterparts in other industries are seriously looking at adding additive manufacturing technology to their mix of manufacturing tools. As Eric Pallarés, Chief Technology Officer at BCN3D notes, additive manufacturing proved itself to be a technology that is adept at overcoming supply chain issues and offering the efficiencies of localized and decentralized production. So, it’s a fair bet that additive will continue to enjoy more acceptance in the supply chain, especially as industrial users look to work smarter as businesses recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Additive manufacturing brought the possibility of realizing the goal of digital manufacturing to the forefront. It is one of the first technologies designed to make parts through the use of a digital file and an internet connection. One of the great benefits of additive is that you can send a digital file to a 3D printer located near your customer, who could be countries away from your location. Most legacy manufacturing machines still need to get connected through the Internet of Things or Industry 4.0.
As additive technology gains acceptance, what are the trends for 2021? Here are a few:
Full production. One of the criticisms of additive manufacturing involves quantity and speed of build capacity. According to a recent survey from additive provider Essentium, the number of companies now using additive manufacturing for full-scale production runs of hundreds of thousands of parts doubled from 7% in 2019 to 14% in 2020. The study revealed that while 41% of companies that use additive manufacturing are now doing so for the full-scale production of parts, this number is set to increase to 49% soon.
Leasing versus buying. The effects of the Covid pandemic will not go away anytime soon. According to users of industrial additive manufacturing systems, increasing the use of additive could potentially save billions of dollars in production costs while building stronger production approaches that can withstand even a once-in-a-century crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the challenge brought on by the pandemic is that for a number of companies, its effects are straining capital expenditures. Some additive CEOs I spoke with think getting approvals for capital investments will remain a challenge throughout 2021. Leasing may become the dominant way companies acquire not only additive equipment but other manufacturing equipment as well.
Additive will make gains in aerospace. Hundreds of airline parts can be manufactured on additive systems in the same time it takes to assemble the components by traditional methods. Noted Blake Teipel, CEO and Co-founder, Essentium, recent longitudinal work with the USAF to certify 2X-3X more new materials in the coming years is a signal that the move to additive is accelerating.
Here comes the money. Expect to see a few companies go public, as Desktop Metal recently did, which many see as a sign of overall health for this industry.
A sidenote here, more venture capital firms and others are investing in additive manufacturing. Thanks in part to the effects of Covid, various groups are accelerating their investment in additive manufacturing. But you can also expect the consolidation seen across the market in 2020 to continue into 2021.
Shifts in the supply chain. According to one survey, 57% of manufacturers increased the use of additive manufacturing to produce parts to keep their supply chains flowing during the pandemic. Because the pandemic highlighted additive manufacturing’s flexibility and versatility, more companies realize that producing parts themselves, without relying on global suppliers, puts them in a stronger position to get their products to market.
Indications are that investment plans in additive technology have changed at many companies with 25% of manufacturers ramping up 3D printing to meet supply chain needs and 30% evaluating industrial-scale 3D printing to fill supply chain gaps.
Software takes additive to next level. When I was a younger engineer, the pattern of technology development was first hardware advanced, then software followed and leap-frogged hardware, then hardware caught up, then software bypassed hardware, and so on. This pattern seems to be happening in the additive industry. We’ve had years of hardware development. Now the focus is on software to address those issues that smooth the additive production process from beginning to end. This trend will continue throughout 2021.
One of the better benefits of additive software, though, is that it enables companies to scale the technology as their business needs warrant. “Scaling doesn’t mean just doing more, it means doing additive efficiently and consistently,” states Greg Kress, CEO of Shapeways.
3D printing at scale involves nesting, tray planning, file fixing, build planning and more. Software provides the insight required to get prints manufactured correctly and therefore make it easier to produce quality products.
Infiltrating more industries. As design engineers get better acquainted with additive technology, the range of uses will expand. The core industries of aerospace, automotive, and healthcare will continue to grow, but other industries will present opportunities. Applications that involve high mix – low volume production take advantage of the benefits of additive manufacturing.