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Pandemic Brings About Milestone Year for Additive Manufacturing

Jan. 6, 2021
Industry leaders provide insight into what 2020 meant to the additive manufacturing sector.

It’s easy to understand why many people would like to officially sweep 2020 under the rug and never think about it again. However, in the world of manufacturing, the pandemic induced reality brought about seemingly monumental revelations – especially when looking at technology.

  • Robust remote access and function operation environments have arrived.
  • Robots and automation are more flexible and adaptable than many wanted to acknowledge.
  • Additive manufacturing has a very realistic place within today’s manufacturing operations.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to touch on each of these revelations in detail. First up, looking at the milestones additive manufacturing realized in 2020 with a virtual roundtable asking a number of industry leaders to provide their insights. 

Chris Schuppe, general manager, engineering and technology, GE Additive : The role that 3D printing and the wider additive industry played in the global response to COVID-19.  Whether printing masks or respirator parts or door openers or swabs, the mainstream media and general public saw the profound and positive effect that 3D printing can have to disrupt supply chains or repair fractured supply lines.

The proliferation of 3D printing in space applications.  Nearly every major rocket maker is using metal 3D printing in some shape or form. This is only going to continue to expand as this recent space race continues.

Seeing the GE9X engine certify. This jet engine represents the second generation of additive for GE Aviation.  Going from 18-19 fuel nozzles in one material system in one modality in the LEAP engines to over 300 parts with the materials (CoCr, Al-Si-7Mg, TiAl) and two modalities (DMLM and EBM) shows the potential of developing products with an additive mindset.

Patrick Dunne, vice president of application development, 3D Systems: The key milestone over the last year has been the rapid acceleration in the adoption of additively manufactured parts into platforms that were formerly considered to be the exclusive domain of traditional manufacturing. We now see critical components in jet engines, rocket engines, fighter aircraft, and Formula 1 cars. Any industry that values maximizing performance. Some other examples include orthopedic implants, silicon wafer tooling, and high precision scientific instrumentation such as CT scanners and even cryogenic cooling circuits for the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Additive Manufacturing has activated a revolution in design and product optimization.

Benny Buller, Velo3D CEO and founder: Covid uncovered that there is a big gap when it comes to supply chain flexibility, specifically in the areas of agile and localized manufacturing. It also highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of metal AM as a production solution; weakness primarily driven by its inability to produce parts that were not designed for AM. As this crisis has shown, in a crisis, there is no time to redesign parts for AM. The ability to produce direct replacements of parts is a necessity for production-readiness and pandemic-readiness. This realization is a major milestone that will lead the way to the adoption of more capable and dependable metal AM solutions in the future.

Jonah Myerberg, CTO and co-founder of Desktop Metal: First, speed and production. Today’s binder jetting technology has speed and production rates far superior to other metal 3D printing technologies, rivaling those of traditional tool-based die casting and metal injection molding (MIM). When added part complexity and design flexibility become essential, binder jetting is the only solution for manufacturing from a cost-efficiency perspective. Add to this the ability to build parts directly from digital tools instead of physical tools, and the ability to close the loop on quality control and design changes, once customers begin to design parts for AM, there is no going back.

Second, quality and repeatability. Today’s AM tools allow for a shift to a much more repeatable and predictable process. Through the use of digital twins and precision process modeling, we are now able to simulate the physics of 3D printing so well that we completely understand it and can predict it. Closed loop 3D printing can tune in and deliver at the tolerances required for scale production. We are seeing improved properties over the equivalent die-cast or sand-cast components -- and tolerances that are better than what you can get out of molds.

Stratasys Americas President Rich Garrity: Technologically the pace of milestones was probably slowed a bit this year due to the pandemic, but as a market we really powered forward. In particular, the way the global 3D printing industry came together collectively to produce what I am sure was over a million face shields was a great milestone for the power of distributed manufacturing enabled by 3D printing.  It was a remarkable moment of collaboration among peers and competitors for the good of humanity, and also to show there is real value, at scale, in this technology. 

For ourselves, our recently announced acquisition of Origin is a key milestone towards the growth of additive. This start-up company’s software-driven and cloud connected 3D printing systems can help us scale to runs of hundreds of thousands of parts.  They’ve done it already. Bringing their P3 technology to the market at scale in 2021 is going to be a big deal. For industrial designers, we also hit a milestone in being able to go straight from 3D rendering software to 3D print in full, accurate color and texture. It used to take 1-3 weeks to get highly realistic final prototypes, and with shelter-in-place orders, you couldn’t get them at all. Now it’s overnight, printed from your home office if you want. That’s a game-changer. There is a lot of pressure for consumer product companies in particular to make up for lost time and bring new products to market, and Stratasys and KeyShot have made that much easier. Finally, I think it’s remarkable that for the first time the U.S. Air Force put up one million dollars in prize money for an Advanced Manufacturing Olympics this October in which they challenged our industry to come together to use additive in mission-critical ways to improve their readiness. Our PEKK-based Antero material was designed into some parts in one of those competitions and few on an F-16 that week. And, of course, all this happened remotely in the midst of a pandemic. That’s the adaptability and agility of 3D printing in action.

Glynn Fletcher, president of EOS North America: Candidly, 2020 will not be remembered fondly by most. Despite the circumstances, the AM industry has really seen significant innovations, acquisitions, and growth to support the pandemic relief efforts. There has been no lack of new materials offerings, software advances, and dozens of business and technical alliances. These innovations have put AM on the mainstage and shown the world what this technology can do, from not only a rapid prototype perspective, but from a full production standpoint as well.

One example is the increase of awareness/usage of the concept of “distributed production”, which is a form of decentralized production practiced by enterprises using a network of geographically dispersed manufacturing facilities that are coordinated using IT. Distributed production has been an instrumental AM practice during the pandemic with its ability to increase transparency of supply chains, increase flexibility of production, reduce warehousing and shipping costs, and easily adapt products to meet individual or regional tastes. And with the ramp up of sustainability, it will continue to be a major topic in 2021 due to its capacity to reduce product carbon footprint.

Ramon Pastor, head of 3D printing technology, operations and metals, HP Inc.: It has truly been a watershed year for 3D printing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In collaboration with a global network of partners and customers, we worked quickly to deliver more than 5 million personal protective equipment (PPE) parts to fill urgent needs. As the industry has come together, we’ve had many learnings and expect a number of trends to emerge and accelerate as economies reopen and we begin to operate in an entirely new global environment. Often times of crisis can stimulate innovation and catalyze action. We expect this will ring true in the months and years ahead specific to digital manufacturing. Beyond the pandemic, we’ve seen strides across industries. Cobra Golf, for example, is unleashing a new era in sports by building on a rapid shift toward product personalization to produce a first of its kind 3D printed putter. And SmileDirectClub continues to digitally transform the $12 billion orthodontics industry using 3D printing to customize products, accelerating the growing phenomenon of mass customization.

New digital manufacturing software innovations are now providing the tools and infrastructure to enable production at scale, leading to greater productivity. As we announced in October, HP has made significant advancements in the management and automation of complex 3D printing workflows and large-scale additive manufacturing fleets.

And, finally, this massive transformation is leading to more sustainable manufacturing as local manufacturing eliminates CO2 associated with transportation and shipping, use of less plastic, more recyclability, and the demand for more innovative materials that enable companies to manufacture in more efficient, effective ways.

Arian Aghababaie, co-founder, president and chief strategy officer of Holo: 2020 has been a challenging year that has stressed manufacturing and supply chain systems globally, as well as reignited the on-shoring debate and discussion of the importance of manufacturing as a pillar of a diversified economy. The COVID-19 crisis has enabled AM to “step up" as a technology to bolster and increase the resiliency of supply chains as well as create whole new pathways for production in moments of crisis - from ventilator parts to nasal swabs. This augmentation of manufacturing that AM has enabled in 2020 has not gone unnoticed amongst industrial and political leaders, allowing for deeper exploration for its use in a range of industries as well as a part of the national manufacturing strategy - setting the industry up for an exciting 2021. 

This roundtable discussion will continue over the next few days with a closer look at where additive in headed as well as the industry's biggest obstacles.  

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