A technology to revolutionise manufacturing

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The 3D printing process is only just beginning to realise its potential. From relatively simple prototypes to complex made-to-order products for the aerospace, defence, medical and industrial sectors, 3D printing technologies are expected to redefine the processing sector.

Though it has been around for a while, 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) was thrust into the limelight when German machinery maker Arburg premiered its new machine concept last year at the K2013. The Freeformer, as it is known, is said to costefficiently produce plastic components as one-off parts or in small batches directly from CAD data and without a mould.

The firm says that inexpensive standard granulates can be processed by first being melted in a plasticising cylinder, similarly to the process for injection moulding. A stationary discharge unit with a special nozzle applies the plastic drops to the movable component carrier in layers, using high-frequency piezo technology. It enables the production of fully-functional parts and not just models and prototypes.

The excitement surrounding the launch of the Freeformer was enthralling simply because the process has never been given much publicity before or perhaps because the industry is at a spurt growth stage.

3D printing growth

According to Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm that has been a fervent tracker of the trends in AM and 3D printing, the market for 3D printing products and services grew to US$3 billion in 2013 attaining a CAGR of 34.9%, the highest in 17 years. Wohlers also adds that the growth of worldwide revenues over the past 26 years has averaged 27%, with the CAGR for the past three years (2011-2013) reaching 32.3%.

It also expects worldwide revenues to reach US$12.8 billion by 2018 and to exceed US$21 billion by 2020, as stated in its Wohlers Report 2014.

Wohlers also believes the industry will continue strong growth over the next several years, fuelled by sales of under US$5,000 “personal” 3D printers, as well as the expanded use of the technology for the production of parts, especially metal, that go into final products.

“The industry is experiencing change that we have not seen in 20+ years of tracking it,” stated Tim Caffrey, Senior Consultant at the company and author of the report.

He added, “What’s most exciting is that we have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.” Caffrey also pointed out that the revenues are in “manufacturing, not prototyping.”

This is reaffirmed by Anthony Vicari, Lux Research Associate and lead author of a report titled How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models.

“Consumer uses of 3D printing attract most of the headlines, but industrial uses, from moulds and tooling to actual production parts, are quietly having the greatest pace,” said Vicari. He adds that the field is “still just getting started,” stating, “Advances in processing and printable materials technology are still necessary for future growth.”

Overcoming impediments to growth

According to Lux’s report, the 3D printing market will be driven by the aerospace, medical, automotive, consumer products, architecture and electronics sectors. It expects the sector to nearly quadruple to US$12 billion in 2025. Printers alone will be worth US$3.2 billion, with US$2 billion for formulated materials and US$7 billion for the value of parts produced.

Currently, four printer companies, 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS and Arcam, dominate the market and hold a combined 31% printer market share, according to Lux.

Lux also notes that the “razor/blade model is a hurdle,” with 3D printer companies often selling formulated materials at a steep mark-up: ten to 100 times. This approach, Lux says, was tolerable when companies only used 3D printers for prototyping, but it remains a major impediment to the use of 3D printing for production parts, as companies like 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS restrict third-party materials suppliers from entering the market.

In 2006, the expiry of several early patents enabled the emergence of lower-cost desktop printers from companies like Makerbot, as well as consumer-facing 3D printing services like Shapeways, raising popular interest in the technology.

However, Lux predicts that an “even bigger shift is coming as patents on other key 3D printing technologies start to expire over the next three years, lowering costs for those methods and widening the range of capabilities available to users.”

One company that has expanded capabilities of a normal 3D printer is Singapore-based start-up Blacksmith Group. Its Genesis 3D printer integrates 3D scanning into a single system. It uses fused deposition modelling on a rotary platform, instead of the Cartesian platform, and is able to scan objects for reproduction on the same unit. The digitised objects can also be modified and combined to form new 3D objects.

Other features are the in-built camera that provides automatic error detection during printing as well as offsite monitoring and control via smartphone. Files can also be printed directly from SD cards without the need for an external computer through use of an inbuilt LCD monitor, while wi-fi connectivity is also under development.

Sizing up the opportunities in medical sector

Business research firm IDTechEx notes that the majority of 3D printing applications are still embryonic in terms of development in its Applications of 3D Printing 2014-2024 report.

However, it says the hype around consumer printers is dying but will soon be replaced with the hype around 3D printed critical components in commercial airliners; fully-printed rocket engines; 3D printing in schools and universities; animal-rights-friendly bioprinted human tissues for drug toxicity and cosmetics testing; and, ultimately, 3D printed electrics and electronics starting with the replacement of wiring with functional 3D printed enclosures containing embedded conductive pathways.

But one area where IDTechEx expects a lift-off is in bioprinting, which will constitute a value of US$3 billion by 2025. Bioprinting can lay different cells and tissues suitable for diagnostics and medical research as well as for drug development. It is also predicted that 3D printed tissues can eventually be used for human organ transplants, especially for the human skin.

Realising this potential, Singapore-based Bio3D Technologies has introduced what it says is the world’s first modular bio-printer for printing of bio-materials such as cells, antibodies, proteins, bacteria, bio-gels, polymers, plastics or even a combination of everything.

The start-up company says its patent-pending Life Printer X offers a precision of less than 10 microns and has integrated laser guides to monitor the progress. A unique feature is the use of modules that can be changed, depending on the materials and requirements.

With technology at the forefront, it is expected that this processing will take off over the coming years.


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