Industrial 3D printing – The future of additive manufacturing 08:10:2019

Despite the macro-economic correction in the global markets that we are currently witnessing, industry is undoubtedly looking at a bright future when it comes to technological innovations and development. One of by far the most topical developments is the increasing use of industrial 3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing (AM).

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High growth rates projected for additive manufacturing (AM)

Already by the end of 2018 the value of the global market of 3D printing solutions exceeded € 3bn and analysts from SmarTech Markets Publishing are forecasting that in 2025 this value will reach a whopping € 15bn. High growth is expected for applications of additive manufacturing for both metals and polymers, thus confirming the increasing use of these two groups of production materials in serial industrial production.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that not all aspects of 3D printing are developing or growing at the same pace. Even though this technology has become firmly established in recent years, its application has for the most part been well-developed only in certain regions or industries. The most common reason for this is that many companies and industries simply do not have sufficient expertise to make further steps in development. As a result, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are particularly cautious when it comes to implementing additive manufacturing, despite being aware of all its benefits.

Three-fold projections

This technology is going to radically transform industrial production. We summed up the projections for the transformation of manufacturing in view of the development of 3D printing (additive manufacturing technologies) in three points:

1. Serial production based on additive manufacturing and wide-scale industrial digitalisation are growing rapidly

The maturity of 3D printing technologies today already enables manufacturing of components and end-use parts, small-scale series of industrial products. It also enables high and consistent quality and accuracy of production with decreasing costs per unit.

The introduction of serial production thus undoubtedly opens up a spectrum of opportunities, but these come with new, additional demands of the customers. These demands involve more than just the way in which conventional production could be replaced by additive methods; customers are primarily interested in how they can gradually integrate additive solutions into the existing manufacturing practice, which largely still relies on conventional industrial production processes. The focus remains mainly on the effective integration of industrial 3D printing and conventional manufacturing methods with a view to maintaining and improving the quality of product and data flow.

Other factors, in addition to increased automation, consist of elements such as available input (raw materials), improved system productivity and in turn reduced costs per unit. In short: at the moment, the focus in on successful digital connectivity between conventional and additive technologies.

The transformation we are witnessing is gradual and takes place in parallel with a comprehensive shift in the industry – accelerated digitalisation of the industry introduces new models of cooperation between companies, a process that runs through the entire manufacturing chain. Industrial companies are rapidly digitalising their manufacturing processes in order to set up digitally networked smart factories where industrial 3D printing solutions play the leading role.

2. Know-how in additive manufacturing is becoming increasingly important and remains the key to its expanded industrial application

The most inhibiting factor in the wider implementation of these trends is frequently the lack of know-how and poor awareness regarding industrial 3D printing. According to the 2016 study by Ernst and Young on cost-efficiency, flexibility and development of innovative products, three out of four companies were still not aware of the advantages of 3D printing. What is clear is that expertise in additive technology is the key to successful transformation and expansion into existing industrial applications.

What’s more, many companies find it increasingly difficult to cope with technologically complex changes alone, and with the inevitable breakthrough of additive technologies professional consulting in the planning and implementation of such industrial-scale projects is becoming more and more important.

3. Intensity of change varies by region and industry

Industrial 3D printing will continue to have a strong impact in the transformation of many industries. This takes, and will continue to take place with different intensity of change and applies also to the pace of technological changes by regions: at the moment, North America and Europe are clearly ahead of Asia Pacific when it comes to introducing additive technologies.

To be more concrete, in terms of industries it is primarily highly-regulated ones (such as aviation and medical devices industry) that were the first to become aware of and implemented the advantages of industrial 3D printing. This applies above all to serial production and even manufacturing of safety-critical parts. The automotive industry, on the other hand, responds with a slight delay, but is catching up with said industries and will make up for this lag with increased investments in 3D printing in the next years. Another trend worth mentioning are 3D printed parts for Formula One and luxury cars, but they are increasingly being built into more affordable car models as well, which can thus take advantage of 3D printing to offer a more personalised experience for their buyers.

In such circumstances, industrial companies must not only protect and perfect their business models – for the sake of improved flexibility and shorter response times to market (end buyers) needs they are forced to develop new manufacturing sectors (additive technologies of 3D printing) in order to maintain growth and, most importantly, competitiveness. New technologies of industrial 3D printing will support companies in the process, but at the same time they will have a significant impact on industrial business models and the ways in which companies will operate and cooperate in the future. In this context, employees will have to be extremely flexible to keep pace with the fast-changing working environment. In view of changes in industrial planning and production this presents new development opportunities for the employees.

Industrial 3D printing is very likely to continue to make great strides. Technology is gradually maturing and is already turning serial in certain industries, or is close to reaching serial production maturity. Still, technology and offered solutions alone are not enough. Both companies and employees must therefore change their mindset and acquire a new skillset that will allow them to achieve the desired level of development and competitiveness.

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