Many see additive manufacturing (3D printing) as an innovation that will change how we produce goods in a disruptive way. And it is true – this technology has the potential to do that.
We are now getting only the first inkling of the all of the things that can be produced using additive manufacturing. But from the smallest components to bridges over the canals of Amsterdam, many things are already conceivable and technically feasible.
Additive production methods are being employed in a growing number of industries. While the total market for additive manufacturing was about USD 7 billion in 2016, it is expected to reach about USD 12.5 billion in 2018 and USD 21 billion in 2020.
Advantages of additive manufacturing
Reduction of storage costs
With additive manufacturing, products no longer need to be produced in advance and instead can be manufactured precisely when they are needed, which reduces the necessity for storage and thus cuts storage costs.
Additional potential for cost-cutting lies in the manufacturing process itself, which avoids material waste. The key to this is indicated in the name of the process itself: it is “additive.” In traditional methods, tools are used to remove excess material from a material block. This accumulates as waste or must be laboriously recycled. With additive methods, a component is created through the accumulation of material in layers, so that, from the outset, only the amount of material that is actually required must be applied.
Flexible and globally available
First and foremost, however, additive manufacturing will impact the future of logistics. In the future it will be possible to send products as data files and produce them on site. This not only saves costs but also protects the environment, since roads, rails and airways will be less congested.
Metal is the primary material used for printing in these industries:
Additive manufacturing is used above all in aerospace. This sector accounts for up to 15 percent of the market for metal printing. Why is the new technology so popular here?
One reason is that reducing weight can save considerable costs in the aerospace industry. A component optimized using additive manufacturing can be 50 to 80% lighter than one produced with traditional methods.
Another reason is the enormous potential for cutting costs associated with maintaining aircraft. Especially where older aircraft models are concerned, maintaining supplies is expensive. Many parts are no longer produced. When replacements are ordered, minimum volumes often have to be accepted when traditional manufacturing methods are used. The ability to print replacement parts yourself saves time and money.
The first printed part – for the compressor in an aircraft of the United States Federal Aviation Administration – was approved for commercial air transport in 2016. Components for the passenger cabin may also be printed: the buckles for safety belts, for instance.
Additive manufacturing with metals is also of growing importance for the automotive industry. The fact that the process brings with it enormous potential for cutting weight and costs makes the technology extremely attractive for this sector.
However there are also observers who view additive manufacturing in the automotive industry – at least for the moment – as mostly hype. Speed is decisive in this industry, and additive manufacturing is still simply too slow for that. The question is: How many units are needed – and what is the cost of manufacturing compared to conventional methods? The cost factor is contrasted against speed.
For the time being, the manufacturer of larger parts in particular is still a vision for the future. The future worldwide market for printed technology products is nonetheless pegged at USD 90 billion. Less than one billion of this is currently being produced from 3D printers. Thus, the new technology still holds enormous potential.
Replacement parts for machines or new tools are made available much faster with additive manufacturing. For instance, a farmer in the Australian outback or an astronaut in a space station could receive the required parts as data files (see above) and print them out on site.
Additive manufacturing therefore holds an even greater potential, namely for countries that possess inadequate production infrastructure and are therefore dependent on imports. Instead of importing products that might not even be suitable for their market, they can provide themselves with their own, custom-tailored products. Additive manufacturing could provide people in developing countries with the possibility of achieving a bit of independence with their own production.