The pandemic proved us that our traditional manufacturing methods were outdated. We were too slow to react and produce the devices we needed to survive. 3D printing will be the next revolution of manufacturing and prototyping, with a speed suited to our fast-paced world.
- 3D printing is the horizontal layering of material to create 3D objects from a digital template
- The technology dramatically reduces prototyping time and permits on-demand, personalized production
- 3D printing has a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 60% from $12 billion last year to $120 billion in 2025.
- The shortage of masks and other devices at the beginning of the pandemic showed us that our traditional production methods were outdated and not efficient enough
- The future is not about a can-do-it-all printer, but about specialized printing machines.
Introduction to 3D printing
3D printing is the process in which a digital model is turned into a physical, three-dimensional object by adding material layer by layer. The commonly used term is “additive manufacturing”. Plastic is one of the most common material used in the process, but one can also 3D print with metal or even rubber-like materials.
The computer slashes the object in horizontal layers, followed by the machine. Image source (3D hubs)
The main advantage of this technology is that it drastically reduces the time between design and production phase. The supply chain complexity is also heavily reduced, and the cost is a fraction of traditional manufacturing.
The two applications of 3D printing
According to Materialise one of the leading companies in the industry, 3D printing is only starting to make a difference, and the possibilities it brings is only at an infancy stage. So far, the technology is mainly used for two purposes. The first is a prototyping solution which accelerates product development, allowing faster testing, more rapid design iteration and thus quicker innovation. The second is as a manufacturing technology for a lower cost, low-run production. This allows on-demand production, mass customization and fewer design restrictions.
First, 3D printing dramatically accelerates innovation. It becomes much faster to build prototypes and test new inventions. The aerospace industry, which requires a lot of prototyping and testing, is expected to be a prime beneficiary: drone hardware revenues should total around $100 billion by 2025.
If we take the example of Airbus, which is working on building commercial airplanes running on hydrogen, we could see the first commercial flights without CO2 emissions by 2035. As you guessed it, this fast switch will be possible thanks to an accelerated prototyping method offered by 3D printing.
The second main value of additive manufacturing lies in the way it can produce objects that no other manufacturing method can. It offers the possibility to customize, use less components and optimize waste and makes for a far more durable way of producing. While the short term mainly looks at COVID-19 solutions, additive manufacturing will allow us to create an entire new industry which we are only beginning to explore.
If we combine 3D printing and artificial intelligence, it enables us to discover highly optimized designs which we would have never been able to build with traditional manufacturing methods, objects that are lighter, more resistant to shocks and optimized in their material use. AI will also help in the automation of the 3D printing workflow, optimizing production capacity by improving the machine utilization as well as planning production orders according to availability, with a precision that could not be attained by human brains. AI can also identify the areas where too much material is used and come up with more adapted solutions.
Customizing objects and process customization
3D printing facilitates can reduce the cost of object customization, but what is often overlooked is the personalization and optimization of the printing process itself. Why is this so important you may ask?
Many think that 3D printing is pushing a button and having our object appear. However, this would be missing the full scope and possibilities of the technology. Indeed, one printing process will never be able to fit all purposes.
The full capability of additive manufacturing will only really be unleashed when engineers tweak every little parameter to get the best results. These results will be attained only if printing engineers – if we can call them that – can adapt the printing process to the type of objects they want to produce.
Finally, process customization will allow each printing engineer to add their own expertise and experience. This is crucial for companies to attain differentiation. As you know, differentiation fosters innovation, and we need it to keep going forward. A fixed and uniform 3D printing process would be the death of the industry’s progress.
3D printing market outlook
According to ARK Invest Big Ideas 2021 report, 3D printing is set to revolutionize manufacturing, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 60% from $12 billion last year to $120 billion in 2025. They also believe that the total market potential for prototypes is of $12 billion, while the market for molds and tools amounts to $30 billion. The end-use parts are the real deal though – parts that are immediately usable like shoes, parts or even houses – and it could represent a $490 billion market. On the graph below, you can get a glimpse of the different areas where these end parts would go.
Image source: Ark Investment Big Ideas 2021
The recent pandemic as a warning sign
Covid-19 fostered innovation and the use of new technologies in many different sectors, and 3D printing was one of them. Many medical devices (ventilator valves, Emergency respiration devices), personal protective equipment (face shield, respirators), personal accessories (face masks, filters, door openers) as well as many other accessories could be mass produced thanks to 3D printing.
The recent crisis showed us that our traditional method of production is outdated. Our globalized world is exposing us to new threats – such as pandemics – and we need to be able to have manufacturing facilities with the ability to support us in a timely manner. It took us weeks, if not months, to make face-masks available to everyone. This is a trouble we simply cannot afford anymore.
Some companies driving 3D printing
While knowledge and cost of the technology can be important entry barriers for some companies, the emergence of service providers has democratized the adoption of 3D printing, which allowed many companies to test and take advantage of additive manufacturing too.
On the other hand, some companies started the Additive Manufacturing process over ten years ago, which makes them well positioned today to make the greater shifts to the technology.
Down below, discover some key players of the 3D printing sector:
Materialise is a Belgium based 3D printing company that provides rapid prototype design and manufacturing. They have over 1,000 employees worldwide, working on building prototypes with an emphasis on the medical world. What makes them special is that they not only provide rapid prototypes, but also provide a marketplace where customers can upload their design and have them mailed to them. This allowed them to quickly grab a wide share of the market, from both customer and industrial demand.
This is one of the oldest 3D printing companies, having been founded back in 1986. Chuck Hull wanted to commercialize stereolithography, a specific technology that utilizes ultraviolet lasers to help create parts with extreme precision. The company prints plastic, metals, and other materials. They offer products (3D printers) as well as materials and services. This complete offering combined with one of the longest experiences in the domain leaves them with a solid grasp on the market, despite the many competitors that have risen in the past decades.
Founded in 1999, the company started trading on the NYSE in 2012. They are the largest companies on this list, with a $4.2 billion market capitalization as of the end of 2020. While 3D printing is not the core of their activity, they still have an industrial-grade 3D printing service that allows engineers to prototype with an increased efficiency. They also provide CNC Milling as well as injection molding.
Stratasys is yet another giant that has been active in the market for the past 30 years. They specialize in manufacturing 3D printers that are used in the process of designing and manufacturing various products. They also offer manufacturing components used in many fields such as aerospace, automotive, consumers electronic, consumers good, education, dental, etc. Throughout their lives, they have continuously acquired innovative startups in the industry to keep their technology up to date.
From Germany, ExOne is an industrial 3D printer company which is known for commercializing Binder Jetting 3D printing. This is a technology that can work on metal and sandstone. They are part of the big player’s club, but fewer companies operate in their specific sector, which makes them one of the leaders for Binder Jetting.
These are only 5 of the major 3D printing companies, but there are many interesting players on the market, such as: FARO Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ:FARO), HP (NYSE:HPQ), Desktop Metal Inc (NYSE:DM), Carbon 3D (non-listed), GE Additive (non-listed), Formlabs (non-listed), Markfored (non-listed), SLM Solutions (ETR:AM3D), Xjet (non-listed), Shapeways (non-listed), Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO).
It is funny to see that all these 3D printing stocks prices literally took off at a very similar time. Could it be the influence of one of Cathy Wood’s Ark Invest ETF? One may wonder, but in any case, the sector remains full or promises.