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3D Printing, Closer Than You Think

Date posted: September 29, 2015

Over the past year we’ve had the opportunity to write a number of times about additive manufacturing— 3D printing— as it’s captured the imagination of the business press. But until now, the application of the technology has been largely limited to prototyping, reducing the time it takes for designers and engineers to conceptualize, create and test their ideas. According to a recent column in Fortune, the technology is clearly moving into a new phase: expanding from rapid prototyping to the assembly line for end-use production.

According to a recent report from Stratasys Direct Manufacturing (SDM), the service arm of the global 3D-printer manufacturing company Stratasys, for 3D printing to catch on the rapidly changing manufacturing industry, it will have to be seen by companies less as a fascinating technological upgrade and more as an everyday business decision.

“Today 3D printing is still perceived as a technology solution, but the future of 3D printing is as a business solution,” notes Joe Allison, CEO of SDM, in 3D Printing’s Imminent Impact on Manufacturing.

The report pulled together survey responses given by 700 designers, engineers, and business executives, nearly half of whom work for manufacturing companies that pull in more than $50 million in revenue a year. Respondents came from the aerospace, medical, automotive, and energy industries, and all of them work for companies that are already using advanced manufacturing processes or plan to introduce things like 3D printing or direct metal laser sintering within three years.

A key finding: the growth in 3D printing over the next three years will come in “end-use” production.

The next phase of 3D printing development within manufacturing companies will involve bringing 3D printing out of the realm of rapid prototyping and into the assembly line, where additive processes are used to make parts that end up on the final product. This is already happening in some industries, particularly in aerospace and medical equipment. How fast is this moving? One example: within a decade every commercial airplane will have 3D printed parts.

To prepare for this shift in 3D printing, companies are increasing staffing, training new workers, and buying more 3D printing machines. The report shows that 73% of respondents said their companies plan to increase their in-house production of additively manufactured parts.

Printing in metals will be key.

According to Jim Bartel, senior vice president of strategy, marketing, and business development for SDM, customers, especially those in the aerospace and medical fields, are asking for and using aluminum and titanium, lightweight metals with considerable material strength. The report bears this out: At 84%, respondents ranked metals as the leader when it comes to which materials they’d like to see developed further for additive manufacturing in the future. SDM expects additive metal use overall to double in the next three years.

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road,” observed futurist Stewart Brand. It looks as if manufacturers are not going to get steamrolled by 3D printing, but rather leverage it— sooner rather than later— as they move along the road into the future.