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The changing landscape of manufacturing through 3D printing

When will 3D printing go mainstream? From saving lives to building cars, 3D printing’s possibilities are great and within reach.
Revolutionary technologies often languish in the wings for years, as smartphones did. Then they hit a tipping point - for smartphones, it was touchscreens and apps - and everything changes. Our lives go topsy-turvy. Industries get remade. And a few years in, we look back and say, oh, yeah, that was obvious.
And so it is for 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. 3D printed prosthetic limbs, cars and equipment for exploring Mars? All are now on the way. The printers are popping up in our kids’ schools and in maker spaces down the street.
From startups like Food Ink to global players like Johnson & Johnson, companies are developing new and innovative uses for the disruptive technology.
Industry forecasts reflect this growing infiltration. Over the past three years, after decades of chugging along, the market began showing hints of the hockey-stick growth that heralds major shifts.
In 2016, the entire 3D printing market was $6.1 billion, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates. By 2022, that’s expected to exceed $26 billion, estimates Wohlers Associates. And Boston Consulting Group forecasts that within 20 years, it could become $350 billion market.
So what will it take for 3D printing to fully unleash the digital industrial revolution that is already underway?
What are the tipping points that will move it from prototyping or small-volume manufacturing of niche parts to a new standard for large-scale industrial production capable of digitally transforming the $12 trillion global manufacturing industry?

Platforms need to be open

What does open platform mean? In the simplest terms, an open platform is an innovation machine. It allows outside parties to innovate on top of the existing technology and leads to faster innovation cycles and lower costs.
As with computers and software, an open 3D printing ecosystem can spur innovation, and its economies of scale can help to drive down costs. HP®’s Open Materials Platform is one example.
HP® lets the biggest materials companies in the world develop new and innovative 3D materials that unlock a new wave of parts and applications, helping further expand the market and give customers new opportunities to innovate.

Material costs need to come down

Historically, operating costs have been a deal breaker, says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates:

3D printing material can cost 20 to 100 times more than a similar material when it’s used in traditional manufacturing.

Why? Many established 3D printing systems today are “closed” - meaning manufacturers are locked into using costly materials for specific machines with limited technology.
But recently, as companies including HP® have introduced open systems, costs have decreased, says Wohlers. Over the past seven years, steel and titanium - the two metals most commonly used in 3D metal powder alloys - have dropped in price, with steel falling an average of 26 percent and titanium down 15 percent.
Open systems enable more materials suppliers to get into the market, increasing competition, driving innovation and reducing costs.

Multi-material printing for a multi-material world

Manufacturers need more 3D materials to choose from. They need systems that can use a wider choice of materials. And they need to be able to churn out products composed of multiple materials.
Today, most 3D printers use only one material, such as thermoplastics, ceramics or metals, including steel, titanium and nickel-based alloys. At the same time, there are a very limited number of materials available to manufacturers - about 80 types are used in 3D printing, with over 1,000 variants, compared with around 30,000 for injection molding.
Open platforms can help. Think of HP®’s Open Materials Platform as a kind of app store, with more players delivering more innovation around materials for more applications, all with the reliability and quality needed for industrial manufacturing assured by HP®.

Speed and quality are key

The industry also needs to get 3D printers to produce final parts faster, and with quality that is as consistent, if not more, than traditional manufacturing.
The dynamic is straightforward: If the machine is slow, the cost per part is usually higher. And if it’s printing inconsistently, those operating costs can multiply.
However, recent innovations have started to raise the bar. Last year, HP® introduced its first line of HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers, built on a breakthrough technology that uses multiple nozzles for high-speed and high-resolution printing of thermoplastic products. It’s up to 10 times faster than current laser-based deposition-modeling 3D printers, producing engineering-grade parts at half the cost.

Redesign how you design

Designers need to rethink their process to make the most of what 3D excels at - enabling unprecedented creative freedom, reducing the distance between idea and physical reality and providing the opportunity to create things that were previously not possible with traditional processes.
They also need to apply the economic benefits of digital manufacturing to their design process. New technology will allow them to reconfigure existing structures so they’re optimized for additive manufacturing, helping to cut down on material and assembly costs.
“The availability of mature design software tools, coupled with an experienced workforce, is one of the biggest obstacles to the adoption of 3D printing for production applications,” says Wohlers.
Mark Cotteleer, Director of Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research, says:

Technology deployments don’t always fail because the technology doesn’t work. They fail because the organization does not develop the capabilities - business processes, talent development - to extract real value from them.

The tipping points that will accelerate the 3D printing revolution are closer to being realized than ever before.
An increase in open platforms, new cost-efficiencies driven by economies of scale, the development of more plentiful and affordable materials, and a new generation of digitally-driven design talent pushing the boundaries of what’s possible: these are but a few of the factors that will soon unleash the full potential of 3D printing and unlock manufacturing’s fully-digital future.
This article was originally published in The Garage.
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