A look at the next five years in 3D Printing

Paul Guillaumot.
Paul Guillaumot.

Here, Paul Guillaumot, CEO of Singapore-based Spare Parts 3D, as part of a thought-leadership series from www.3Dprintingindustry.com, takes a look at additive manufacturing in the near future

In recent years, exciting news of new 3D printing technologies and applications are reported on an almost daily basis. Looking collectively at the emerging new capabilities of additive manufacturing, few can doubt that we’re on the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution. Regardless of whether it will happen in the next five years, the adoption of additive manufacturing is sure to move beyond prototyping and gravitate towards end consumer use.

Commercialization of 3D printing will leverage on on-demand capabilities

Much discourse has been written on the cost-saving function that 3D printing provides. Undeniably, the successful integration of any new technology is often deeply rooted in it. In certain applications, however, this cost saving function arises directly from 3D printing’s on-demand production. This is attributed to 3D printers being able to print a multitude of various different parts without the need to change the hardware – i.e. the 3D printer itself. As such, owning the right 3D printer allows you to have access to what you need whenever you need it. Implementing this into businesses, whereby accessibility and availability is crucial, will naturally translate to reduced costs. One prime example would be the difficulty in managing spare-parts inventory. As the demand for spare parts is completely unpredictable, there’s no way to keep an optimal amount of inventory that minimizes inventory costs and maximizes parts availability. Given the widespread relevance of spare parts – ranging from appliance to automotive or aerospace industries – the market potential for incorporating 3D printing in spare parts’ management is simply staggering.

3D prints made by Spare Parts 3D.
3D prints made by Spare Parts 3D.

Gradual maturity for 3D printing metals

While there’s much excitement surrounding metals 3D printing, I believe that it’s unlikely that we see metal 3D printing becoming mainstream within the next 5 years. The high-level requirements pertaining to metal industrial production – such as dimensional accuracy, surface finish for fit assembly and mechanical behaviour prediction of 3D printed metal parts – still requires technology development and cost reduction, as well as a better understanding from the industrialist to get widely adopted. Hence, just as plastic 3D printing has evolved a lot within the last 7 years after the key patents became public, the metal 3D printing ecosystem will certainly need some time to mature and improve, to find out its next application niches.

Achieving consistency and standardization in quality

As 3D printing is relatively new in being used for production of end-use products, there has yet to be an established quality standard for 3D printed parts. This is sorely needed for two main reasons. First, to accelerate the spread of 3D printing to new products. Indeed, as 3D printing is particularly valuable for production of small customized volumes, it’s important to lower the investment cost related to the two key steps required before production: industrialization and qualification. Secondly, because it’s a key enabler to effectively deploy a uniform distributed production, leveraging at most the 3D printing capabilities, while having the ability to ensure product quality, is important.

Towards subsidiary processes automation

Finally, if current additive manufacturing processes continue to be more optimized, upstream processes – from 3D modelling to printing – and even more downstream processes (physical parts support removal, curing, post-processing, finishing, etc.) still requires a lot of development for getting standardized, automatized and better integrated. Creating a seamless workflow from design to finished product shall be the next objective of our industry to open more opportunities for the use of 3D printing. I hope we’ll see major developments of the auxiliary processes in the coming five years.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.