The requirements of manufacturing and the abilities of AM are growing more closely aligned. Here Andy Langfeld, President, EMEA at Stratasys, explores what this means for the technologies, the 3D printing/additive manufacturing industry and the future drivers of the associated technologies.

What are the biggest trends and drivers you’re currently seeing in 3D printing/additive manufacturing?

A fundamental trend we are seeing is the ongoing transformation from 3D printing as solely a prototyping technology, to becoming a fundamental technology in both prototyping and manufacturing. We are at an inflection point where there is a significant acceleration in the development of new materials for additive manufacturing (AM) and the technology platforms are maturing. This is happening at a time when manufacturers are managing through a period of disruptive change that makes AM’s benefits even more compelling.

Materials are playing a central role in creating more touchpoints with manufacturing. Our own lead times for new materials has drastically reduced thanks to our new open materials model. As a result, where historically a new FDM material would come to market every 12 or 18 months, we saw more than a dozen materials a released in 2022 alone.

We’re also witnessing a move from the 3D printer being the sole focus of the conversation when talking about the technology. As we have matured into manufacturing the talk is increasingly about ‘scaling up’, with the whole ecosystem becoming more and more important. From the viewpoint of the 3D printer, the ecosystem goes upstream into additive design, process certification, scheduling, file preparation and other functions, and downstream into automating post-processing. Industry 4.0 integrations and even advances in AI are likely to drive adoption in manufacturing in the years to come.

Consolidation of OEMs has been tipped as a likely trend for 2023 – how do you see that playing out?

I think you will see consolidation across the board. On the metal side there are less proven use cases for AM. I think that’s why there’s more speculation about consolidation in the metals AM sector. We still need the innovation from emerging companies. But we’ve been acquiring some of those companies to bring stronger and more complete solutions to our global customers. That takes scale and a global go to market and support organization. As a result, we can now address solutions across the product value chain and on a single software platform. Our customers are looking for that.

What are the biggest ongoing challenges currently facing the 3D printing industry?

The foremost challenges are those shared with the rest of the world: supply chain resiliency, rising energy prices, workforce availability and general market buoyancy. The good news is that while these global factors affect AM OEMs like everyone else, we are part of the solution for manufacturers. Adopting AM throughout the manufacturing value chain can increase manufacturers’ flexibility, giving them great scope for dealing with outside forces. There’s still huge scope for AM to continue its advance in replacing other manufacturing technologies and materials, such as replacing machined metal with 3D printed engineering polymers and composites.

I do think we need to improve our ability to articulate these benefits in hard economic terms. For example, we have been defining exactly where AM makes more sense than injection molding and how that translates into per part costs. Incidentally, At the end of the day, economics will win, not like features, which is a big shift for our industry.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for AM in manufacturing today?

The requirements of manufacturers and the capabilities of AM are coming together, meeting in the middle. When you look at manufacturing, you see that the requirements are moving towards smaller series, higher customization, more onshoring. Producers see the value in having less high-volume production of spare parts, but on-demand spare part production.

Conversely, you see AM capabilities growing: additional technologies, more materials, a higher degree of certification and repeatability, and lower cost per part and higher volumes. Today, the most compelling economics are for smaller, more complex, parts at volumes under about 10,000 but in some cases up to 200,000 parts. Looking ahead, I see more and more touchpoints between manufacturing requirements and 3D printing, and each touch point opens up new use cases.

In terms of what’s next, what’s coming down the line and where do you see the direction of travel?

I think that there’s always something to learn about the future by looking at the bill of materials (BOM) of any product. In recent years, 3D printing technologies have advanced in such a way that we can produce parts in larger volumes and with a lower cost per part – a trend that is reasonably likely to continue. More of those parts in a BOM are going to flip to be economically compelling for an additive manufacturing process.

Specifically, when looking at a typical BOM, it is typically not possible to print every part, but today between 20 and 50% of all components generally make technical and economical sense for 3D printing. This ratio is affected by the number of plastic parts, their complexity, size, and cost. The more complex the part and particularly with sizes below 200mm, you are looking at a much greater likelihood of being able to replace a traditional process like injection molding with additive manufacturing.

A key barrier to adoption of AM is the part selection, which requires some level of expertise in both conventional and additive manufacturing processes. Some additive OEMs are supporting customers with this part identification process, while some software providers are offering solutions to help automate part selection.

Finally, can you provide any insight insofar as what we can expect from Stratasys itself over the short- to medium-term?

Our priorities are going to be around investing in more robust software capabilities, continued materials growth as we complete our acquisition of Covestro’s materials business, and delivering these complete solutions for use cases across a variety of industries. There will still be new 3D printers, even exciting ones, but what we’re doing on the software and materials side will be just as compelling, especially as we’re able to address entire digital workflows for key applications in dental, healthcare, fashion, and manufacturing.