You, Me and 3D

By Grant Nader

The investment case for 3D printing

If ever there was a poster child for the technology hype cycle, 3D printing is it. The market hype peaked in around 2012 when it was all the rage and then the bubble (in the stocks at least) burst. The hype was fueled by the expectation that every household would soon have their own 3D printer, but since then people have somewhat forgotten about this incredible technology, unaware that it is prevalent and growing in almost every industry in the world.

3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) as it is also known, is poised to move out of the shadows and lead a new wave of technological innovation in manufacturing production. it is going to disrupt and reshape global supply chains, fabrication and industrial production.

The real power of 3D printing does not lie in someone printing a screwdriver in their garage, or a serving bowl in their kitchen, the real power lies in industrial applications. This includes healthcare, automotive, aerospace and defence manufacturing.

For example, some of the world’s most cutting-edge companies and institutions including the likes of Spacex, Tesla, and NASA already regard this technology as mission critical.

The additive manufacturing industry grew at a 20% compound rate between 2006 and 2016, before accelerating to a 25% compound rate over the past four years. The market is expected to grow from around $10 billion in 2019 to $146 billion in 2030 (over 10x through the coming decade).

We are seeing 3D printed houses, shoes, cars, human skin, blood vessels, organs and more. However, each industry application is a significant discussion. For the purposes of this article we will briefly explore some AM basics and some of the use cases in some of the largest industries. We will cover its role in healthcare in a subsequent report.

What exactly is 3D printing?

The process of 3D printing itself involves building a 3-dimensional object based on a digital model. The actual material is deposited one layer at a time (hence the description additive) and the whole process is guided by software.

For many years it was used mostly for prototyping and casting of new designs. Once the design and moulds are complete, the factories around the world such as in China carry out the traditional mass production process. What has changed is that the advancement of printing technologies (hardware and software), lowering of costs and material science improvements (especially in metals) mean that 3D printing is moving toward mass production.

Traditional manufacturing by contrast, is either subtractive – such as machine tools cutting out a shape from a big block, or formative such as injection moulding. Before being used for manufacturing, a traditional metal cast-produced part would be designed in CAD (a design software), a mould manufactured, a test cast then manufactured, and finally potential alterations made. The traditional process has a much slower route to market.

What held 3D printing back?

Incredibly 3D printing has been around for over 30 years. While no one has ever denied the potential for 3D printing to be a game changer in fields such as manufacturing, there have been some real challenges along the way. Fortunately key patent expiries in the late 2000s have fueled the next phase of the technology adoption cycle, being use case expansion, cost reductions and widespread adoption.

Cost: AM machines were expensive, relative production cost was high and materials were of a lower strength than traditional methods.

Ten years ago, printing was done mainly using plastics or similar polymers and industrial machines were still very expensive. The machine cost is a large part of producing parts versus traditional manufacturing in which the biggest cost is the initial mould which gets smaller as a percentage with each extra part produced. As such the industrial use cases focused mainly on creating moulds and prototypes rather than high volume production.

Materials and strength: Due partly to  the material inputs available (limited applications with metals and alloys for example) and partly to the layering and construction design (the actual internal printing design was weaker), parts made via AM generally could not stand up to high stress environments such as jet engines and motor engines.  The weaknesses of metals printing meant the number of industrial use cases were limited.

So, what has changed?

Over the past decade, material science has advanced to a point where strength is no longer an issue.

Design and software: The level of AI and software complexity available today has been a great enabler. It is used to virtually design and create the object on the most granular level. Generative design algorithms produce thousands of design alternatives from which the designer can choose the best suited. In addition, the software enables topology optimisation (so that material is most efficiently and only where needed) versus traditional methods which naturally used a lot more material and can result in up to 90% of often expensive material being thrown away.

The design science (CAD) software also enables structural optimisation which improves the integrity of the design (such as the now commonly used lattice design). Now engineers are using and testing new designs such as those found in nature to optimize the strength and integrity of printed objects. Engineers and AI have studied cell structures in items such as leaves, beehives, pinecones for optimal strength and design features and these are being incorporated into the generative algorithms.

Fun fact: From cake to steak, 3D printed food is a real thing: The AM process is being used to print vegan steak. Its unique ability to print in edible layers will allow for something that replicates the texture and striated diversity of meat.

Material science is the where the innovations have been greatest. We now have the ability to print in almost any materials and costs are rapidly coming down. Two of the most important areas for the industrial use case are the advances in metals and in biomaterials. The article will not be examining biomaterials and healthcare but this is perhaps the subject matter for discussion in an upcoming post.

Metals: Key to the industrial application and usage growth are processes called direct metal laser sintering (DMSL) and selective laser melting (SLM). These methods mean that a metal part can be 3D printed directly from a computer model. DMSL is the technology with the largest industrial current application and TAM.

Briefly, these processes use finely powdered metal and metal alloys or mixtures. They take these metal powders, and deposit one layer across the object surface design. Then a laser is used to partially or completely melts this single layer of metal, before the next layer is deposited, fusing the layers together one layer at a time. Objects are built layer by layer meaning material waste is negligible, (another positive when using expensive inputs such as titanium). While the list is growing, a wide range of metal and metal alloy powders are currently available, such as steels, aluminum, titanium, nickel alloys, cobalt, chrome, and even precious metals (used for jewelry).

The real proof of the pudding is in the aerospace and defense industry.

While it was great marketing for the technology when SpaceX sent astronauts into space recently using 3-D printed visors and spacesuits, that does not tell the real story about the value to the industry.

Spacex has been at the forefront of using AM in its factories. They primarily use direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). As far back as 2016, Elon Musk described the powerful combination of design software and 3D printing as revolutionizing the future of design manufacturing (Muskon3DprintingandSpacex).

Using 3D printing allows Spacex to design and manufacture highly complex metal parts without outsourcing any part of the process. It is faster, lower cost and protects their intellectual property.

Spacex began using a 3D printed main oxidizer valve in its Falcon 9 as far back as 2014. It also uses a 3D printed engine chamber on its Dragon 2 capsule. There is no environment that tests metals in a higher stress environment than aerospace leaving no doubt that the AMs metal strength technology can match traditional methods.

AM technology is also being applied in spare parts (short turn-around times are needed) and customized tooling. It has the benefit of significantly reducing supply chain and logistical challenges.

Imagine the increased business efficiency of being able to obtain a single application, custom built tool on an almost just-in-time basis, versus potentially weeks or months of waiting time. For example a rocket fuel injector head is typically between dozens and sometimes hundreds of parts. These are now produced as a single instrument using AM.

The technology is core to NASA and industry plans to colonise Mars. According to 3Dprint.com, NASA has recently announced it will support 27 3D printing technology proposals as part of its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. “Many selected companies will use 3D printing technology as the basis of their projects, which range from additively manufactured thermal protection systems for space vehicles to the creation of an AM facility for the International Space Station (ISS).”

The airline and automotive industry are some of the biggest adopters of this technology.

The FAA has now approved 3D printed titanium engine parts as structural load-bearing components. Although more expensive than aluminum, these titanium parts are lighter and more fuel efficient.

Airplane interiors are also being 3-D printed now which are stronger than traditional components and have the effect of significantly reducing weight. Reduced weight means increased fuel efficiency, critical for the airline industry.

Where replacement plastic component parts are needed previously the expensive and complex injection moulding (especially for low volumes) would have been used. Now they can now print lighter, faster and on-demand.

It is clear that benefits of weight reduction, material efficiency, cost savings, custom parts and speed to market can be game changers for the airline, aerospace and automotive industry.

Not only will geographic locations change but the speed to market will also undergo dramatic changes. For example, Desktop Metal, a specialist in metal additive manufacturing and mass production technology printed a full spec rocket ship fuel tank in 7 days. By traditional methods, this would have taken up to a year to produce.

Costs of machinery, software and materials have come down to the point where the world of manufacturing is moving from decentralized mass production to localized mass customization.

Don’t forget Covid-19

We expect de-globalisation and supply chain risk mitigation by global manufacturers to drive the further onshoring of production. AM is well positioned to facilitate and benefit from this growing trend.

How have ECM invested in 3D printing?

3D printing is one of our core categories in the ECM Global Growth and Innovation Fund. One such investment is Faro Technologies. Faro specializes in 3D scanning and measurement solutions. Their highly specialized technology and software is used in manufacturing, design and scanning and covers a wide array of industries such as aerospace, automotive, and robotic industrial production. The critical scanning technology is highly rated in CAD-Based inspection projects, reducing time, costs and error rates.

Faroarm: Portable 3D measurement arm.

In conclusion

Additive Manufacturing is poised to play crucial role in the technological evolution of the industrial and manufacturing landscape. While we have only scratched the surface of some of the use cases, we believe that 3D printing finally has all the building blocks in place to fulfill its long talked-of potential. We fully expect 3D printing to be one of the cornerstones of technological evolution over the coming decade.

What comes next?

 Nanoscale 3D printing and 4D printing are the future. They already here, but these are also topics for another day.