2020: The Year Ahead In 3D (Printing)

3D printing is coming of age. Not that much long ago, we are still getting excited at machines that could print a 3D model of our head, or a miniature replica of a famous building, or a small miniature replica of our houses and many more. Few years later, new generation machines can be able to print medical devices and implantable human body parts for medical industry. Meanwhile, 3D printing technology for industry has also progressed very rapidly and exponentially—and it is a space to watch closely in 2020.

Additive manufacturing—the technical name for 3D printing—transforms the way we build objects, opening up a universe of new possibilities. By gradually adding layers of materials, instead of cutting and soldering, 3D printing allows us to build parts with new geometries. And new geometries have different physical properties: think of a honeycomb structure that gives you greater resistance with less weight. This is where 3D printing becomes a very powerful tool for industrial applications: we can now build parts that are lighter, more heat resistant, stronger; and we can build the same products with fewer parts: for one of their jet engines, GE engineers reduced 855 separate parts to just 12, dramatically simplifying the assembly process.

With additive manufacturing, complexity is free: we can build a geometrically very complex objects as easily as a simpler one. But at the same time, additive manufacturing also helps us to reduce complexity by giving us fewer parts to assemble.

3D printing allows the use of new materials—and in turn it spurs materials science researches to develop another new materials which is best suitable for the additive process. Aided by AI and spurred by 3D printing, expect new materials discovery will accelerate in 2020.

Additive manufacturing plays a major role in the Industry 4.0 revolution; it will help scaling traditional economies of scale, making microfactories economically much more efficient; and it’s already contributing to reshape global supply chains, strengthening more and more new local networks. In 2020, however, the most exciting new developments will likely come from the evolution of 3D printing technology. Manufacturers of 3D printers are working hard to expand the performances and efficiency of their machines along different dimensions:

3D printers will become more faster

for additive manufacturing to achieve new heights and gain some popularity, 3D printers need to produce much more greater volumes, and to achieve this thing they need to print faster. Impossible Objects, founded by serial entrepreneur Bob Swartz, has already been pushing the limits of speed, they are working on the speed of their 3D printer , with a thermal inkjet technology that leverages the speed properties of 2D printing. Earlier this year, Impossible Objects has unveiled a brand new machine designed which will be ten times faster than the other traditional 3D printing processes. There is always a race between manufacturers to make the best of the best. The race has now begun—expect more speed records to be broken in 2020.

3D printers will ‘colonize’ a wider range of environments.

Additive manufacturing can become a delicate process. In many 3D printers, it takes place inside a chamber that controls temperature and humidity and keeps out unwanted particles and any kind of undesired particles. This will significantly limit what these machines are able to do. MELD Manufacturing has developed machines that can print in uncontrolled environments. For example, they can operate ‘in the field’, on oil rigs and in army forward operating bases; free of the constraints of a controlled chamber they can be able to print larger components and can be used to repair as well as to build some new parts. In 2020, expect to see 3D printers to operate in a wider range of remote environments. Think of a remote and hard to reach mining location, where being able to print a replacement part rather than waiting for a new one to arrive could dramatically reduce production losses.

Software advances will amplify the power of 3D printing.

Additive manufacturing is one of the highly digital process. In fact, a key benefit of 3D printing is that it allows you to modify the design of a component by just changing the digital blueprint—massively accelerating the cycle of design-prototype-test-production. But software plays a much important role in additive manufacturing: Essentium already uses software to check materials and production protocols so that the parts produced can be certified, protecting against any type of counterfeiting.

Markforged has developed a cloud-based solution that allows products and parts to be designed in one location and immediately produced at any place, so that different manufacturing facilities in the same company can access the same blueprint in real time. In 2020, expect additive manufacturing to develop new software solutions to bolster IP security, remote collaboration, and manufacturing precision.