Trends in 3D Printing at Scale: From Rapid Prototyping Solution to Factory Floor Asset

| The Essentium Team


3D printing is an additive manufacturing (AM) technique for fabricating a wide range of physical products from a digital design.

By depositing material, layer upon layer, instead of removing it through traditional milling, machining, carving, shaping or other subtractive means, manufacturers can use this process to create an array of finished products — anything from a pair of sports shoes to automotive parts to medical devices. While 3D printing offers an enormous potential to increase design flexibility, shorten manufacturing time and deliver better value, some stakeholders still perceive it as a prototyping, one-off solution used in the engineering lab, rather than a large-scale production solution for the factory floor.

At Essentium, we’re working to change that perception. We partnered with Dimensional Research to survey 162 executives and managers located worldwide who are directly responsible for decisions related to 3D printing for production parts. Our goal was to learn if experienced 3D printing stakeholders believe its long term outcome as a large-scale production solution is a realistic expectation or a pipe dream. Here’s a brief synopsis of what we found:

3D printing of production parts has grown dramatically in the last year.

For nearly three decades, 3D printing has been broadly used for prototyping or highly customized one-off parts. Today, more companies are pushing the boundaries beyond simple prototyping and implementing 3D printing across their entire manufacturing process — from creating manufacturing aids and tooling jigs to limited-run and even full-scale production parts. In fact, the survey found that 3D printing for full-scale production parts almost doubled from 21% a year ago to 40% today, and companies doing runs of thousands of 3D printed production parts jumped from 18% last year to 47% this year. Nearly half of all respondents said their use of 3D printing for production parts increased by a factor of five or more in the past year. This growth is driven primarily by increased user experience, a wider range of materials with improved quality and lower costs.

3D production printing will continue to grow at an accelerated pace.

Expectations for growth in large-scale production are increasing aggressively. The previous survey found that the primary benefits of 3D printing were mostly speed-related, such as reduced lead time and speed-to-part; largely prototyping applications. This year, the top benefit cited was cost reduction, a nod to the improving economies of scale, reliability and reduced cost and waste of additive manufacturing. A majority of executives report that their use of 3D printing will increase “dramatically” in the next three to five years due to its potential to reduce overall manufacturing costs, which makes 3D printing more attractive for limited and full-scale production runs. For example, 3D printing doesn’t require tooling. By eliminating tooling costs for a new product, manufacturers could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Obstacles remain to widespread technology adoption

Changing mindsets is never easy. The survey reports that 91% of respondents face resistance when presenting 3D printing as a viable alternative for large-scale production. Ironically, the most often cited barrier to adoption is the high cost of 3D printing materials and hardware, even though most 3D printing professionals are well aware of savings it can deliver over the long term. It takes money to make (and save) money, and for some companies the acquisition cost must be lower before they commit. Some believe 3D printing does not scale well, while others do not trust the materials. Then, there are those customers who refuse to get locked into a single vendor’s proprietary hardware. They are waiting for open standards to emerge that will give them more control and choices in hardware and materials without interoperability issues. Clearly these concerns will need to be addressed in order to fulfill the promise of large-scale 3D printing, but all signs point to it being an achievable reality.

Indeed, market trends and feedback from surveyed participants indicate that the future is bright for 3D printing on the factory floor — if you have the right solution that can handle production at scale.

If you’d like to learn more about what your peers think of the future of 3D printing at scale and how Essentium can help get you there, we invite you to download the white paper.

Essentium, Inc. provides industrial 3D printing solutions that are disrupting traditional manufacturing processes by bringing product strength and production speed together, at scale, with a no-compromise engineering material set. Essentium manufactures and delivers innovative industrial 3D printers and materials enabling the world’s top manufacturers to bridge the gap between 3D printing and machining and embrace the future of additive manufacturing.

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