On one hand, it shone a bright spotlight on the technology’s speed and flexibility as individuals and companies alike leveraged it to produce vital components needed to help fill gaps in ruptured supply chains, according to Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm of 34 years located in Fort Collins, Colorado.
On the other, it put a dent in the explosive, years-long expansion of 3D printing, slowing growth of the global industry last year to 7.5 percent, compared with its annual average of 27.4 percent over the previous decade, according to the 26th annual edition of the Wohlers Report. The industry reached a total value of nearly $12.8 billion last year, the 375-page report estimates.
Additionally, said principal consultant and president Terry Wohlers in an April 12 telephone interview, most established manufacturers of AM systems actually saw a decline in equipment sales in 2020. At the same time, however, many less-established equipment companies grew in 2020, and AM service providers saw their business increase. So many companies are in the AM equipment business now, he said, “and they just keep coming.”
The survey replies indicate that almost 95% of companies are using 3D printing to produce at least 1,000 parts. Half of survey participants said they use AM for 1,000-50,000 parts. Source: Jabil report “3D Printing Technology Trends”
Taking heroic action
In one of the more celebrated cases of AM addressing a crisis, supplies of a vital ventilator valve ran dry at Chiari hospital in Brescia, shortly after the coronavirus outbreak ravaged northern Italy in March 2020. Called a venturi valve, it connects to a patient’s face mask to deliver oxygen at a fixed concentration, and the valves need to be replaced for each patient.
A local engineering start-up called Isinnova heard of the emergency on a Friday, reverse-engineered the $11,000 part and used a filament extrusion system to 3D print replacement valves, for free, on location at the hospital just two days later. The company estimated that it cost 2-3 euros each to print the valves, whose usual medical certification was waived due to the emergency circumstances. The quick action is said to have saved the lives of 10 Covid-19 patients.
Christian Fracassi, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Isinnova, who holds a Ph.D. in materials science with a focus on polymers, told Forbes magazine at the time: “We printed 100 of them on Sunday, and we gave all the pieces to the hospital. They are working very well.”
Scores of others also leapt into action over the ensuing months to 3D print various supplies of personal protective equipment and gear, and in many cases helped to provide speedy relief to those who needed it.
The sector forges on
Wohlers said that he expected additive manufacturing as a whole to take a hammering due to the pandemic. Based on anecdotal information, he said, “If you would have asked me sometime in the middle of last year, I would have projected a decline in the AM industry of maybe 20-25 percent.”
Wohlers Associates then conducted its annual survey of players across all segments of the sector worldwide, and “we received an avalanche of data,” he said. Once Wohlers and his team started analyzing it, they were amazed that the industry was still showing growth despite all the challenges.
“The production of nasal swaps and parts that go into face shields and ventilators and so forth, we think that contributed [to the growth] –– but to what degree, I don’t know. It’s impossible to quantify.
“I think that most of the contribution to growth came from the industrial sectors that benefited from the pandemic. Anything outdoors –– hiking, biking, skiing, boating, camping, footwear–– those sectors were thriving in a big way.”
The medical market is generally fairly resilient, he noted. Many elective surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements, were postponed due to the pandemic, but there is an ongoing need for models and components to help address accidents and emergencies.
Other AM-intensive sectors, meanwhile, did take a beating, such as commercial aircraft and (until later last year) automotive, he said.
After 30-plus years of photopolymers being the most-used material in AM, polyamide (nylon) has finally caught up, Wohlers noted. Photopolymers, he said, have been used primarily for models and prototype parts. But with powder-bed fusion gaining traction as an AM process, companies increasingly are 3D printing commercial parts, and for those applications durable, well-understood nylon is often a material of choice.
When it comes to 3D printed metals, titanium has traditionally been the most-used material, but in the past year it was surpassed by aluminum as the most popular. Until just a few years ago, it was difficult to find a high-quality aluminum for additive manufacturing, Wohlers said, but now many aluminum alloys have been developed, and they are less expensive than many metal alternatives.
Wohlers Associates asked companies how much 3D printing use had grown within their company for production applications. They received data from hundreds of companies, which reported that, on average, their use for production grew by 23.9 percent in 2020 vs. the prior year.
There could be many reasons for this, Wohlers noted, including increased confidence in the process, the availability of more standards, and the growing recognition of the need to design for additive manufacturing (DfAM). “If you simply design as you always have for conventional manufacturing, whether it’s molding, casting, or machining, it almost always works against additive manufacturing,” he said. “It just doesn’t add up.”
By employing DfAM, one can often realize part consolidation and topology optimization, leading to lower weight and a reduced use of material. Being able to reduce the use of often-expensive support material, especially with metals, is also a key AM benefit, saving on material and labor costs, as well as time.
“You can design in ways to reduce the support material to a minimum, and turn it into permanent features,” Wohlers said. “It can be a showstopper if you don’t consider methods of DfAM.”
The value of AM part production among independent service providers continues to soar. Source: Wohlers Report 2021
AM’s most profitable processes
In its survey, Wohlers asked service providers, who are some of the biggest and most sophisticated users, which AM process was the most profitable for them in 2020. For the first time, powder bed fusion (PBF) from HP Inc. was the top choice, metal PBF from EOS GmbH was second, followed by polymer PBF from EOS, and then stereolithography from 3D Systems.
The “Other” category in the chart, which accounts for a leading position at 24.3 percent, reveals how these service providers are opting to buy and use AM equipment from many small, emerging suppliers at a surprising rate, while the more established makers of AM systems saw their sales slump last year. Independent service providers worldwide posted 7.1 percent growth in 2020, resulting in nearly $5.3 billion of revenue from this group, according to Wohlers Report 2021.
Jabil’s look at 3D trends
Jabil Inc., the $27 billion contract manufacturer and supply chain specialist, also is an active proponent of additive manufacturing, and the St. Petersburg, Florida-based firm in March published its own survey of AM decision makers, in a 38-page report titled “3D Printing Technology Trends.” The firm, which conducted similar studies in 2017 and 2019, says 302 qualified individuals completed the online survey –– all responsible for decisions related to 3D printing at manufacturing companies with more than $500 million in annual revenues.
In 2021, 81% of participants responded that they expect use of 3D printing to at least double in the next three to five years, while 79% said the same in 2019. Source: Jabil report “3D Printing Technology Trends”
Some of the Jabil study’s key findings included:
Use of 3D printing for functional or end-use parts continues to increase; almost 55 percent say they use at least a quarter of their 3D printing capability to produce functional or end-use parts
Prototyping has stayed flat, but all other uses of 3D printing increased notably in the last two years
Companies that manufacture production parts are more likely to have 100+ 3D printers
Expectations for extreme growth of 3D printing continue in 2021, with 87 percent predicting that their use will at least double in the next five years
3D printing has the most impact early in the product lifecycle (i.e., design and prototyping)
Expectations for growth of 3D printing for production remain high
Issues with 3D printing in production continue; compared to 2019, platform issues rose 8 percent and ecosystem issues increased by 13 percent. Scalability challenges, meanwhile, rose 5 percent from 2019.
Respondents anticipate a wide range of benefits, especially ability to deliver parts quickly, lower production costs, speedy responses to production line issues and production of personalized and customized goods
A higher level of potential benefits was reported among executives
More than half of top leadership views 3D printing as strategic
The use of all types of materials has grown by leaps and bounds in about two years, according to the Jabil study. Plastics and polymers continue to sit at the top of the leaderboard, but use of composites and metals in AM is growing fast. “More than a third of respondents answered that they use plastics and metals equally, and even between those who selected either plastics or metals, plastics only had a lead of 12 percent,” their latest research found.
Still, despite the increases in usage of all types of materials, manufacturers say they still have challenges to overcome in terms of additive manufacturing materials. The biggest issue cited in 2021 is that materials take too long to develop, followed by how expensive the desired materials are to use at scale.
And, so, the adoption of additive manufacturing continues, despite a variety of challenges. Though still often viewed as an emerging technology, it’s important to remember that 3D printing actually dates back to the 1980s. But the technological advances continue apace, making the manufacturing of intricate, complex and highly functional parts, from a variety of materials, more achievable today than at any time in our history.
While plastics and polymers continue to be most widely used, the gap between them and other materials is narrowing. Source: Jabil report “3D Printing Technology Trends”