Originally developed as a rapid prototyping technique, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has come a long way since its infancy in the 1980s. The first stereolithography (SLA) printer was released in 1987, and at the time it was the only available technology. SLA printers created parts by selectively polymerizing a photosensitive resin — the same way they still do today — but material selection was very limited at the time, and therefore resulted in brittle, low-fidelity parts. However, despite this, 3D printing quickly caught on, and soon there was a flurry of research, development, and patent applications as people scrambled to create new forms of additive manufacturing and more advanced materials. Selective laser sintering (SLS) was the next to come along in 1988 and fused deposition modeling (FDM) followed in 1989.
Today, 3D printing technologies continue to improve and engineers are constantly discovering new applications where additive manufacturing is more practical than producing parts via traditional technologies. In fact, additive manufacturing has evolved well beyond technologies principally suitable for prototyping to include production-grade technologies like Carbon® Digital Light Synthesis™ (DLS) and HP Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), which are capable of generating quality, functional end-use parts suitable for the most demanding applications. As the industry grows and gains further popularity, more companies will innovate and push the bounds of what additive manufacturing is capable of. With these advancements, new ideas will come to light and open up even more possibilities for industrial-grade 3D printing.
The Rise of Additive Manufacturing
In the early 2010s, 3D printing slid into the mainstream and has since truly taken off. Much of the recent growth can be attributed to the fact that automotive, consumer goods, aerospace, and medical device companies have opened their eyes to the many benefits of additive manufacturing. Not only can companies use additive technologies to quickly create prototypes, but they can also produce everything from aircraft maintenance tools to accurate surgical models and functional automotive parts.
With constantly improving material selections and advancements in print speed and accuracy, additive manufacturing has become a feasible production method for volume in the tens of thousands of parts. Companies are now able to cost-effectively produce custom products, such as helmets, hearing aids, prosthetics, and surgical guides on a mass scale. Manufacturers can make adjustments directly to a 3D CAD file and start production on a new part revision immediately, oftentimes weeks or months faster than it can take to manually adjust tooling for injection molding, the common alternative to 3D printing. Since there’s no need for expensive tooling, companies can keep production costs low, even as they change their design.
Bridge to Scalable Production
Regardless of the advantages of additive manufacturing, injection molding is still the gold standard for volume production of plastic parts, as it’s a tried and true scalable production method with a vast array of available materials. However, additive manufacturing has established its place alongside and in conjunction with injection molding as a bridge to production, allowing companies to receive their initial run of parts while the final injection mold tooling is being created. Through leveraging both the speed of additive manufacturing and the scalability of injection molding, companies are able to shorten product development timelines and gain a competitive advantage by getting to market quickly.
Along these lines, some companies have even started 3D printing injection mold tooling, as it’s a fraction of the cost of machined aluminum or steel tooling. Additionally, 3D printed tooling can be made quickly — it takes just two to three days to create tooling via additive manufacturing, while CNC machined steel tooling can take up to five months. Though 3D printed tooling is not nearly as durable as aluminum or steel tooling, it’s far more affordable for low-volume production runs if a desired material isn’t available to use with additive technologies.
But why do traditional injection molds take so long to manufacture? Machined molds will often have to go through additional post-processing steps using wire electrical-discharge machining (EDM) to achieve small details like sharp corners that are not achievable via CNC machining directly. However, these complex features can be printed directly with additive manufacturing, which can save time and money in the long run and makes 3D printing an ideal way to get a part into production quickly, even if steel or aluminum tooling is better-suited at scale.
With Supply Chain Woes, Additive Grows
Though additive manufacturing was already on the rise in the lead-up to 2020, it became increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the lockdowns and supply chain issues, companies could produce parts using conventional methods like injection molding and CNC machining in factories around the world before shipping them to warehouses and distribution centers. But suddenly, manufacturing techniques that had worked for decades weren’t quite cutting it in the midst of supply chain chaos. As a result, many companies turned to additive manufacturing to solve their supply chain woes.
Through distributed manufacturing networks, a rise in on-demand manufacturing services, and advancements in additive technologies and materials, more businesses turned to 3D printing instead of traditional technologies to produce small- and mid-sized production runs. And instead of shipping parts around the world, companies began to realize the ease and advantages of uploading CAD files to network-connected 3D printers that would then produce the parts closer to where they were needed. In addition to the increased design agility this afforded, along with reductions in logistics timelines and expenses, manufacturers were able to meet the booming demand for parts and products throughout the pandemic, including for essential products like medical equipment, face shields, and respirator components that were suffering extreme supply shortages.
The Future of Additive Manufacturing
As 2020, 2021, and 2022 have proven, 3D printing is a suitable manufacturing method for any industry looking for a rapid, adaptable production solution, no matter where they are in the world.
While supply chain issues have begun to ease, many companies have integrated 3D printing into their design and production processes, and are seeing it as the new normal when it comes to manufacturing geometrically-complex parts or even simpler parts at low to mid-size production volumes. And as a result of businesses’ continued reliance on additive manufacturing, new processes with greater speed, precision, and reliability coupled with robust and expansive material choices will continue to be developed in the coming years. These new additive manufacturing trends and developments will help 3D printing gain an even stronger foothold in the manufacturing world.
Adoption of Additive Manufacturing in Electric Vehicle Production
One area specifically where 3D printing will likely continue to carve out its niche is in the electric vehicle (EV) industry. Over the past few years, EVs have hit the mainstream, and they’re only continuing to grow in popularity. General Motors will phase out gas-powered cars by 2035 and President Biden plans to replace the federal fleet with EVs, so it’s clear that electric vehicles are here to stay. As manufacturers try to make EVs increasingly affordable and high-performing, they’ll look for cheaper, lighter, and more easily sourced parts, which will pave the way for more widespread adoption of additive manufacturing processes across the mobility industry. As quicker, more efficient product development cycles push the limits of traditional manufacturing technologies, this will create a whitespace for additive manufacturing due to the speed and design flexibility it affords.
Decentralized 3D Printing of Customizable Parts at Scale
While mass customization is already amongst the most popular additive manufacturing trends, it will likely truly take off in the coming years as more businesses figure out how to integrate additive manufacturing into their digital workflows. As companies seek to reduce production and supply chain waste, 3D printing will arise as a natural fit for many industries due to its inherent efficiency. Likewise, additive manufacturing will continue to expand its role in the supply chain. Eventually, 3D printing may help drive a shift toward digital manufacturing and encourage the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies, resulting in a more decentralized, resilient, and eco-friendly supply chain.
Advancements in 3D Printer Technologies
Over the next few years, 3D printers themselves will continue to evolve, becoming larger, faster, more capable, and more affordable. These newer machines will be able to handle more technical capabilities, enabling advancements such as co-printing materials and colors and even embedding electronic components directly into parts. Despite the relatively high cost of 3D printers, their growing utility across a wide range of applications — including making parts that are impossible to produce using traditional technologies — will make additive manufacturing more popular among large manufacturers. As adoption increases, in order to meet commercial demand, so too will printing speeds, ultimately reducing production times even further and lowering per-part costs.
Advancements in 3D Printing Materials
Regarding additive materials, manufacturers can expect more sustainable options to hit the market in 2023 and beyond. After all, sustainability has become a significant focus for many companies. Not only are regulations surrounding sustainability becoming more strict, but using sustainable practices and materials can also help companies build customer loyalty, protect brand reputation, and even attract new customers, making it easier to gain a competitive advantage. As a result, more and more companies are dedicating their time and money to developing new recyclable, reusable, and/or biodegradable 3D printing materials.
In addition to more sustainable materials, additive materials that allow end-use parts to surpass the strength and durability of traditionally-manufactured parts are continuing to be developed. Even at present, production grade additive manufacturing equipment is already capable of creating nearly perfectly isotropic parts, having the same mechanical properties in all directions that rival injection molded and machined parts. With further advancements in additive materials, companies will be able to innovate at a faster pace and create products that push the limits of performance — and do so in record time.
Preparing For The Future Of 3D Printing With SyBridge Technologies
3D printing has already significantly advanced since it hit the market in the 1980s, and progress isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In the coming years, additive manufacturing will only become increasingly accessible, reliable, and precise, opening the door for even more companies to use the technology to produce everything from custom shoes to automotive mounting brackets. But to truly take advantage of additive manufacturing and all that it can do, working with a seasoned manufacturing partner is vital to stay ahead of the competition.
At SyBridge Technologies, we have extensive experience with 3D printing, are up-to-date on the latest additive manufacturing trends, and have top-of-the-line printers, including production-grade technologies like HP Multi Jet Fusion and Carbon® Digital Light Synthesis™. In addition to being a leader in additive manufacturing, we offer end-to-end solutions for the entire product development process — from design to post-production support — across multiple technologies, including injection molding, urethane casting, and CNC machining. When you partner with us, we’ll help you leverage the right technology for your application to create quality parts with the exact specs you require on the timeline you need. Whether you’re prototyping a new design or are ready to scale production, we have the engineering knowledge, capabilities, and dedication to bring your vision to life.
Want to learn more about our capabilities in additive manufacturing? Contact us today to speak with an expert.