3D Printing: Disruptive technology; boon or bane

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3D printing utilising polymers will be valued at US$16 billion by 2027, despite the industry being involved mainly in prototyping at the moment. Nonetheless, this emerging technology could be a boon or bane as a disruptive technology that could have the potential for threats and security implications if not used in the right way, says another report.

Escalating to dizzy heights of growth

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a transformational technology that holds the potential to revolutionise entire industries by making it possible, and in a cost-effective manner, to mass manufacture entirely individualised products. It also allows for design optimisations and functional improvements, such as lighter designs, that are impossible to create with standard manufacturing technologies. As a result, more industries, including the aerospace, automotive, footwear and the eyewear industry, are adopting 3D printing.

3D printing

Thus, the 3D printing market will be valued at US$16 billion in industry revenues from the sale of printers and polymer-based print materials by 2027, according to a study published by SmarTech Publishing.

The study says that dentistry, biomedical, automotive and aerospace sectors will drive future market growth over the next decade.

Move from prototyping expected

While metal 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies have continued to capture a significant share of growth and investments over the last several years, additive manufacturing with plastics continues to be tightly linked to legacy applications in prototyping and modelling despite a significant interest in moving them into manufacturing and production.

SmarTech adds that a new trend is becoming established for manufacturers who are moving away from traditional moulding processes to 3D printing due to factors including costs, output, and lead times.

SmarTech also says that leaders in the 3D printing industry are now fully committed to designing and implementing upgrades, new process architectures, and post processing equipment to improve reliability, predictability, machine productivity, and automation.

These efforts differ significantly in practical implementation depending on print technology, but are setting the stage for a true manufacturing revolution in polymers and plastics, it adds.

Until these new technical upgrades and developments can fully come online in the market, polymer 3D printing technology has continued to grow based on adding value in more concrete areas of application including producing end-use parts indirectly by printing various kinds of tooling, says the report.

Other companies continue to develop processes aimed primarily at prototyping and modelling, which remains for the most part the backbone of the industry.

Technology innovations in processes

SmarTech’s report also analyses technologies, including material extrusion, powder bed fusion, vat photo polymerisation, material jetting and binder jetting processes, as well as materials ranging from thermoplastic filaments, pellets and powders to thermoplastic composites.

It says that extrusion-based 3D printing generated more than 41% of all hardware revenues for polymer 3D printing in 2017. Here, it says, efforts to industrialise the classic extrusion printing concept are taking shape primarily in two areas: increasing the isotropic properties and Z-axis strength of parts, and improving the potential for high throughput manufacturing potential.

Companies like BASF, Stratasys, BigRep, Essentium, and others are working to redesign and improve filament extruders, develop thermoplastic composite materials, create multi-axis extrusion systems, and focus on high volume manufacturing using printers.


In vat photopolymerisation technology, the possibilities and scope of layer-free photopolymerisation continue to expand to push the technology into new realms of direct end use part manufacturing using new more reactive resins resulting in strong, long-life plastic parts of modest sizes. Meanwhile, concurrent efforts to automate the pre and-post processes associated with these technologies present attractive serial manufacturing capabilities for the near future. SmarTech estimates that within ten years, nearly 50% of vat photopolymerisation machines sold will feature a layer-free printing architecture.

Powder bed fusion technology for polymers continues to benefit greatly from efforts in metals additive manufacturing using similar processes, and polymer powder bed fusion systems are now reaping benefits of industrialisation through parallelised machine design to increase productivity, high temperature processing for material expansion, and automated materials handling and post processing.

SmarTech expects that shipments of powdered thermoplastic materials to support powder bed fusion markets will grow to nearly double that of the next closest polymer printing technology by 2027.

Automotive market on a roll for 3D

Meanwhile, the global 3D printing market in automotive is anticipated to expand remarkably at a striking CAGR of 26.2% from 2017-2023. 3D printing is aiding the automotive industry by providing functional prototype phases, designs, part manufacturing and tools production, says a report published by Market Research Future (MRFR).

The report points to expeditious development in technology for widening the application range and for the expansion of its use in the automotive sector. It says that 3D printing has aided the production of more complex designs allowing for a short time span, as compared to the conventional production methods, thus cutting down the manufacturing costs for the production process in the automotive industry.


The increasing focus on introducing innovative and efficient printing materials to provide lightweight spare parts, reducing material wastage and lowering the turnaround time is also driving the expansion of the global 3D printing market in the automotive sector.

On the flip side, the high cost and low availability of 3D printers in the market are likely to act as a restraint on further growth in the automotive sector.

Technology that is used includes stereolithography (SLA), laser sintering, electron beam melting, laminated object manufacturing and others. Among these, SLA accounts for the largest market share in the global automotive market.

Security risks and challenges in 3D printing

3D printed parts

While 3D printing will likely to be highly disruptive to traditional manufacturing sectors, a new report from US-based research firm RAND Corporation indicates that the technology may cause other types of disruptions in the economy. According to the report titled “Additive Manufacturing in 2040: Powerful Enabler, Disruptive Threat”, two overarching security threats may emerge: the proliferation of weapons and economic insecurity. Thus, 3D printers may pose a risk to personal, national and international security.

The report says the use of 3D printing could help empower hostile nations, and potentially create vulnerabilities that could leave manufacturers wide open to sabotage or theft.

According to RAND, these are the main threats to overcome in the future:

  • a) Hacking: Hackers could hack printers by using malicious code to alter blueprints or by infiltrating a printer or corrupting digital files that could result in potentially hazardous flaws in the final printed objects

  • b) Criminal/security threats: With the US army already having 3D-printed a grenade launcher, now criminal and terrorist organisations will be able to 3D-print their own weapons. Recently, the government settled a lawsuit against it that now makes it legal to distribute parts that allow the public to make their own guns through 3D printing. RAND says that regulatory standards could be enforced that require printers to encode a unique ID in their products, making accountability easier. One industry expert noted the potential for genetic-based IDs (e.g., in the raw materials), which cannot be tampered with or erased.

  • c) Loss of jobs: 3D printing could result in loss of jobs amongst skilled craftsmen and specialist machine shops, since the printers are able to easily create complex geometries out of a variety of materials. The World Economic Forum estimates that there will be a loss of more than 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies over the next five years because of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (which includes AI and machine-learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetics and biotechnology). International trade analysis at ING predicts that 3D printing will be even more disruptive by 2060 and suggests that it could wipe out almost one-quarter of cross-border trade. RAND says that new training and education strategies should be created to prepare for the changing skill needs of future industries.

  • d) Disruption to global economy: While organisations like the United Nations rely on sanctions to ensure rogue countries toe the line, it is possible that these countries could get around such sanctions by printing items that are no longer available to them. This could profoundly alter the global economy and international security, says RAND.

Ultimately, what is required is a heightened awareness tempered by caution, says RAND, adding that if the sector continues to develop along its current trends, it could present security threats to individuals and societies.


Any new technology brings potential benefits and threats. “While fraught with risks, policymakers must begin to address the hard security questions that 3D printing will bring, ” says RAND in its report

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