How 3D printing grew up: The new wonders of additive manufacturing

From mass personalization and bioprinting to disaster relief and children prosthetics: 3D printing or additive manufacturing and its impact on our world are here to stay. New opportunities present themselves as this technology advances. And 3D printing has proven to be much more than a fad or simply a consumer-focused tool.

Today, the total worth of the additive manufacturing industry is estimated at $9 billion. Still just a fraction of the $12 trillion manufacturing industry, but unlike the latter, additive manufacturing is a rapidly evolving sector that is expected to grow to $36.61 billion by 2027. Here, we take a look at five ways in which additive manufacturing is making an impact. 


1. It’s becoming personal

Seemingly an oxymoron, mass personalization – also known as every retailer’s dream – has recently been made possible thanks to additive manufacturing. New generations of consumers crave more than off-the-shelf products. Growing up in a world so customized to their tastes, they don’t even notice it themselves half the time. When it comes to manufacturing, this has been a difficult demand to meet. Logistic constraints, a complicated supply chain and product cycles that get too lengthy for competitiveness, are among the barriers.

Thanks to additive manufacturing, however, customers can soon (and in some cases already) customize the desired object – a pot, a mug, a toy, a sneaker – with immediate effect. Unlike in a traditional industry setting, the customization workload will, in this case, be on the customer without any extra cost for the manufacturer.

For dentists, mass personalization has already been used successfully for a while thanks to 3D printing. Crowns, bridges, teeth, caps and even surgical tools are being tailored to each patient. Other industries are eager to follow. The fashion giant Adidas stated last year that they will start using 3D printing to manufacture plastic midsoles. It is not a coincidence that this initiative comes from a sportswear company, as every athlete’s foot is unique and the best sneaker is made for a specific foot. In the car industry, all the biggest players are taking this approach too. In 2017, Volkswagen launched a 3D printed spare parts initiative together with its luxury car brands Audi and Porsche, who announced that they would strive towards a 3D printed “reproduction on demand”. One year later, in 2018, the BMW Group invested 10 million euros in an Additive Manufacturing Campus, at the same time as Daimler became a founding partner of a NextGenAM project


2. Part of the surgeon’s future toolkit

From bioprinting to prosthetics, additive manufacturing has made a significant impact on the medical industry during the last ten years. Analysts predict that 3D printing within this field will be worth $3.5 billion by 2025, compared to $713.3 million in 2016. With regards to bioprinting, the process does not even involve plastic, but actual living cells that are layered to create artificial living tissue. Another use of additive manufacturing in the medical field is a surgical simulation, where replicas of a patient’s organs can be printed and practiced on. Surgical simulation has had a huge impact on both scientific advances and patient welfare in recent years with 3D printing as an important driver. Additive manufacturing can also be used to “print out” patients’ organs and compare them to donated organs to ensure a correct fit. The same goes for prosthetics, which are also made cheaper through 3D printing. This is especially useful in the case of children’s prosthetics, which are quickly outgrown and represent a high cost for the patient’s family. 


3. Every maker’s friend

Additive manufacturing has become an essential part of the so called “maker movement”, which consists of artisans, engineers, artists and others who are interested in producing physical objects. Thanks to new (and often free) tools and software that makes 3D printing easy to understand, the process from idea to prototype has become accessible to all. Another way in which 3D printing has been spurring innovation within the maker movement is the practice of open-source designs, which allows for community members to tweak and build on each others’ ideas. Finally, prototyping – which is a key component of lean and innovative manufacturing – is now made easier and cheaper thanks to 3D printing. The fact that prototyping can now be done for as cheap as $2000-$4000 opens the way for more entrepreneurship and more “makers”. Using 3D printing in schools also serve to educate future entrepreneurs, who are shown – in a practical and fun way – that an idea can crystallise into something concrete. 


4. It speeds up relief efforts

After the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, Oxfam decided to use 3D printing to build water pipe fittings and washers. In general, additive manufacturing has proven very useful in war or disaster situations where the infrastructure needed to transport goods might be compromised or rudimentary. The entire supply chain, from procurement, storage, shipping and distribution are made easier thanks to additive manufacturing, which also offers a super quick way to offer relief in an urgent situation. More long-term, 3D printing solutions can also be implemented in local communities, as a way to foster industry but also offer ways to quickly and cheaply receive help. 


5. A sustainability driver

Industry is a fundamental pillar of the European economy, as it provides 25 % of its GDP. It is also responsible for more than half of the total emissions in the EU. Additive manufacturing could offer a way of mass production in a sustainable way. Thanks to their streamlined production processes, additive technologies save up on both storage, transport and waste. As 3D printing uses the cloud to save its designs, it avoids large storage spaces. 3D printing also makes it possible to reduce – or completely eliminate – transports between manufacturers and users. For NASA, this means a way for astronauts to print custom tools in space. For the rest of the planet, it means less pollution due to transport. Additionally, thanks to the streamlined production model of 3D printing, where the production stands very close – both geographically and timewise – to consumer demand, there is none, or little, waste involved, neither in terms of material used nor in regards to over-production. The forming and milling involved in metal manufacturing, which is an important polluter, is not required in additive manufacturing. In fact, a 2014 study concluded that by 2025, 3D printing could reduce primary energy supply by between 2.54-9.30 exajoules and slash CO2 emissions by up to 525.5 megatonnes. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. For example, 3D printing is undoubtedly still a huge energy consumer – even more so than the milling and drilling of a traditional factory. And it still uses plastic as its main prime material, which is not sustainable either. The plastic material, when heated to extreme temperatures, has also been proven to hold toxic byproducts. Nonetheless, when we consider the entire product life cycle; from the extraction of raw materials to the assembly, refining, manufacturing, re-assembly, use, maintenance and end of a product life cycle, additive manufacturing leaves much less of a carbon footprint than traditional manufacturing. 

These five advantages – or opportunity lanes – of additive manufacturing are just examples of what this technology will bring us in the future.

Want to learn more about how 3D print changes industries?

This fall, Danish AM Hub shares best practices from the field at two events:

October 22: AM Venture Day

Hosted with Talent Garden Rainmaking you get an introduction to Nordic entrepreneurs that move the boundaries of 3D innovation. Whether they work within health, robotics or fashion, all these startups apply 3D printing to business, step by step. 

Program + sign up:

October 23: AM Summit 2019

How do additive technologies bring value to industry leaders? AM Hub answers that question with help from leading brands, including LEGO, Airbus, and BMW. Joining the conversation are decision-makers and global thinkers, making sure that the tech is put into context.

Program + sign up:

31 January 2020

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