Turning Point for 3D Printing

Tim Greene, Research Director-Hardcopy Solutions, IDC
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Tim Greene, Research Director-Hardcopy Solutions, IDC

Tim Greene, Research Director-Hardcopy Solutions, IDC

IDC identifies 3D printing as an innovation accelerator and a key enabler of digital transformation. One of the processes that has been and is being digitally transformed is prototyping. IDC’s research indicates that the vast majority of installations of 3D printers are for use as prototyping systems. Over the decades that 3D printing has been in existence, 3D printing has made prototyping much faster and less expensive across a range of industries. Even prototypes that need to be highly accurate can 3D printed in a matter of minutes or hours instead of the days and weeks that it used to take using alternative processes.

Still, as useful as 3D printers are for prototyping, manufacturers that use 3D printers reported numerous limitations or frustrations with 3D printers. The past 2-3 years mark a turning point for 3D printers as 3D printing equipment manufacturers have done a lot of work to overcome these frustrations. The most frequently cited frustration with 3D printing is what people perceive as high operating/materials costs. There are a lot of reasons for this, and in fact IDC sees this as a frequent complaint across all areas of the printing business that we cover. Bearing in mind that the materials can be critical enablers of the technology, such as photosensitive polymers and highly refined metal powders, it is true that many 3D printing systems require relatively expensive materials. This is changing somewhat, as some 3D printer manufacturers have started developing ways to use the same metal powders that are used in metal injection molding, reducing the need for those very expensive 3D printing powders. On the polymer side companies are using software to calculate smarter placement of supports which means fewer supports are required, lowering production costs. On the materials side we see efforts to reclaim/reuse unused powders which further reduces materials costs.

  Over the decades that 3D printing has been in existence, 3D printing has made prototyping much faster and less expensive across a range of industries  

The second most often cited frustration with 3D printers is slow build speeds. IDC believes that the use of inkjet print head technology is going to represent a huge improvement in 3D printing production speeds. This is because instead of a single point of extrusion, melting, or sintering, inkjet-based systems will leverage the thousands of nozzles across the print head to jet curing materials to create highly accurate shapes. Binder-jetting systems have been used in 3D printing for years, but some of the biggest and best manufacturers and systems integrators with many years of experience in 3D printing are working on this, which IDC believe will enable much greater production speeds. Also the use of these highly accurate systems means less post processing will be required to remove artifacts from 3D builds, which further accelerates production speed.

Manufacturers also report a frustration in that the high-level of need for pre- and post-processing of 3D printed parts is high. One of the ways manufacturers are overcoming this problem is by using software tools to automatically analyze builds before they are printed. This analysis can improve the quality of the build, making the part lighter and stronger even as it can reduce the amount of materials used to print it.

Overcoming some of these challenges has a tremendous upside, as it enables 3D printing to be used not just for prototyping, but also in manufacturing. As the use of 3D printing in manufacturing increases worldwide spending on 3D printing will grow from $12 billion in 2018 to nearly $20 billion by 2021.

IDC believes there are six important benefits of digital transformation of manufacturing enabled by 3D printing as 3D printing systems dramatically increase speeds and lower production costs even as they get more accurate and reliable.

1. Mass personalization–Products that are built to order, partially customized, products designed by customers, and crowdsourced product designs. Products with these features are typically sold at a premium and are returned less often than products that include no customization. In some cases the ability to make every piece differently has already enabled manufacturing transformation using 3D printers. This is the case in the hearing aid industry. IDC believes we are right on the threshold of many new customizable products in industries such as jewelry, eyewear, and footwear in the next few years.

2. Design Freedom–Products and parts that are designed without the limitation of certain geometries that CNC routing or injection molding has placed on product designers in the past. New materials provide greater strength, new 3D printing processes provide greater detail than could be produced using traditional processes. Manufacturers and universities are developing curriculum to train and retrain industrial designers on how to design for 3D printing in the future.

3. Enabling flexible on-demand manufacturing–Using 3D printing enables companies to select the most cost-effective way to manufacture parts and products based on geometry, materials, number of parts, finish, and other customer requirements. Part of the analysis is on set-up times. In traditional manufacturing processes these set-up times can take hours and that changeover and set-up time has a cost with it. With 3D printing these set up times are drastically reduced, if not eliminated, which frees up production equipment to produce the jobs for which it is most cost effective.

4. More efficient supply chain–Streamline supply chains by removing extra steps such as warehousing and transportation of parts and products by producing as many as needed close to the point where they are needed, also saves time and costs related to shipping. IDC has seen industry numbers that suggest that warehousing and storage costs range from 2-5 percent of the total cost of sales for manufactured products. In some industries, like the $76 billion auto parts industry this alone is a tremendous opportunity for cost savings.

5. Accelerate time-to-market–Product development cycles, the time from prototype to short-run production is reduced from weeks to hours using the latest generation of 3D printing systems and production configurations. Today’s 3D printers can more cost-effectively produce parts in quantities of hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands, which means manufacturers, are able to rapidly respond to customer requirements.

6. Intelligence of the system–The front-end of 3D printing systems can provide transparency into manufacturing. Digital files with designs can easily and securely be shared, and versioned, detailed production costs are known, production loads can be balanced and managed-all of this can be done and shown over cloud-based systems so there are two-way communications between the customers for these services and the people that manage the production system.

Over the last 30-plus years 3D printing has played a critical role in the digital transformation of the prototyping process. Now, because of the dramatic increase in the speed, quality, and reliable production capabilities latest generation of 3D printing equipment and materials, IDC believes 3D printing will play a critical role in enabling digital transformation in a growing number of manufacturing environments. 3D printing can deliver many of the advantages desired and in fact required by manufacturers that are embracing Factory 4.0 technologies.

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