3D Printing Technology

3D Printing Technology

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00021359

Publication Date: 2212

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Vendors in a variety of industries are evaluating the opportunities and
risks presented by 3D printing. But while interest is high, there are
still many open questions about where the technology and the marketplace
are headed. To effectively respond to the potential emergence of 3D
printing as a widespread, accessible technology, organizations need to
understand its capabilities and limitations and closely follow the trends
in how it is being used.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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3D printers create solid objects like key chains, utensils, and toys from
simple raw materials.

Users specify the features of an object with computer-aided design
software, and then the printer creates the object. The
technology is sometimes called “additive manufacturing” (AM) because it
works by applying plastic (or, less commonly, other materials such as
metal or ceramics) in successive layers until the object is created. The
term “rapid prototyping” has also been used because of the technology’s
origins as a tool for easily creating preliminary models of products.

This process can create a single object faster than conventional
manufacturing approaches, which take significant time and money to set up
before anything is created. But 3D printing lacks the economies of scale
of mass production, so it is not nearly as fast at creating large volumes
of products. As a result, some observers expect that the technology will
be good for small-run manufacturing and for creating customized or
replacement parts, but that it will not for the foreseeable future
significantly alter the manufacturing industry. But other observers expect
3D printing to be transformative and to be used for creating anything from
houses to human body parts.

The market is expected to grow at a strong pace, and the technology is
predicted to become faster and cheaper and to be able to print a wider range
of objects. For enterprises that are interested in the technology and how
its evolution might affect their business, this growth and change mean that
it is important to keep a close eye on changes in the industry.


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3D printing has been used since the 1980s as a tool for large commercial
manufacturers to create prototypes, but over the past several years it has
become suitable for a wider range of applications and users. This
shift occurred as the technology became cheaper, design software was
simplified, and a hobbyist culture emerged.

3D printers are made for customers ranging from ordinary consumers to
international businesses. Most lower-end consumer devices are about
the size of a small desktop printer, and those meant for industrial use
tend to be around the size of a floor-standing office multi-function
device. The size of the printer largely determines the “build volume”
of the objects that can be created, although it is sometimes possible to
design objects that are printed in separate parts and then assembled. Most
3D printers connect to computers and networks using familiar technologies
like USB cables or Wi-Fi. The resolution of a printer, measured in
millionths of a meter (microns), determines the precision and smoothness
of the final products. As with paper printers, there is a trade-off
between resolution and speed, and some devices let users set the
resolution for each job. Instead of being loaded with ink and paper, 3D
printers are loaded with raw materials like spooled plastic filament that
comes in a variety of colors. Many other materials are available for
printers that can use them.

Figure 1. A 3D Printer In Action

Figure 1. A 3D Printer In Action

Source: Wikimedia Commons


According to analyst Hossein Ashtari, 3D printing offers three major

Swift product creation,

Low expenses for the initial fixed
, and

The ability to create complicated
geometries using several material types
, something traditional
manufacturing solutions might not be capable of as efficiently.”1


While product and system developers are finding new applications for 3D
printing as the technology evolves and the expenses diminish, 3D printing
or additive manufacturing is well-established in several sectors. As
described by analyst Ashtari, these include:

Construction – “Construction
is one of the significant applications of 3D printing. Specific
applications of 3D printing in construction include additive welding,
powder bonding (reactive bond, polymer bond, sintering), and extrusion
(foam, wax, cement/concrete, polymers).”

Manufacturing – “3D printing
technology minimizes lead times in manufacturing, enabling prototyping to
be completed within a few hours and at a small percentage of traditional
costs. This makes it especially ideal for projects where users must
upgrade the design with every iteration.”

Healthcare – “In healthcare,
3D printing creates prototypes for new product development in the medical
and dental fields. The solution is also helpful for directly manufacturing
knee and hip implants and other stock items and creating patient-specific
items such as personalized prosthetics, hearing aids, and orthotic

Aerospace – “In aerospace, 3D
printing is used for prototyping and product development. The solution is
also critically helpful in aircraft development, as it helps researchers
keep up with the strenuous requirements of R&D without compromising on
the high industry standards.”

Automotive – “Automotive
enterprises … leverage 3D printing for prototyping and manufacturing
specific components. Organizations in this space are also exploring the
possibility of using 3D printing to fulfill aftermarket demand by
producing spare parts as customers require rather than stocking them up.”2

Current View

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Mainstream Tech?

3D printing technology has shown signs of growing outside its small,
core constituency of hobbyists and manufacturers. A study published in
November 2021 found that the technology was close to moving from “niche
status to becoming a feasible choice to traditional manufacturing process
in various applications.”3

The technology has increasingly been used in the aerospace and vehicle
manufacturing industries, for example, as a way to create individual parts
as-needed. And the technology has shown its versatility by helping to
create personal protective equipment during the pandemic.4

Business Models

Currently, many companies in the market are offering a mix of products
and services: selling printers and raw materials, printing designs that
customers submit to them, and maintaining an online marketplace that lets
people sell objects they create. This blended approach is, in different
forms, used by leading companies such as MakerBot. The blended approach
offers many benefits at this early stage in the technology’s development.
It helps bring in newcomers with services like cloud-based printing and
with educational materials designed for non-experts. The marketplaces
offer an economic incentive to designers, and the photo galleries they
publish demonstrate the technology’s possibilities. The blended model has
an additional benefit in that it helps companies identify the most
lucrative revenue streams in a new market.

An alternative business model is to offer 3D printing purely as a
service. Providers maintain the equipment (which is typically manufactured
by another company) and let customers create their designs for a fee.
These services (also called printer service bureaus) are offered in one of
two ways: customers can use equipment at retail locations or they can
submit their designs online and have them built by the provider then
shipped to them.

Organizations that use printing-as-a service often do so to learn about
3D printing, sometimes as a way to determine whether to use it in-house.
Considering the cost of 3D printing equipment and the learning curve
involved with it, this can be a less risky way to approach the technology.

Operational Constraints

As revealed by analyst Michael Molitch-Hou, the 3D printing industry is
presently plagued by three operational constraints – restrictions that 3D
proponents are laboring to remove or, at least, reduce in influence. These
principal bottlenecks are:

Throughput – “3D printing was
never designed with mass production in mind. Instead, its ability to
create complex shapes has been limited to one-off parts or small batch
manufacturing. For that reason, firms across the 3D printing industry have
been working to develop systems that can make many parts as rapidly as
possible, a concept known as throughput.”

Factories – “While a fleet
of 3D printers may be capable of manufacturing at volume, that doesn’t
mean that they’ll necessarily fit into an existing factory operation. In
large part, this is due to the fact that they lack mass production-level
software. Now, a handful of startups have emerged to take on the challenge
of developing AM-specific software for manufacturing execution systems

Quality Control – Perhaps
the biggest obstacle to widespread AM adoption is quality control. This is
because, with additive, each part is distinct. Every point on the build
platform may be slightly different and even the slightest variation in a
printing parameter may change the microstructure of the printed object. As
a result, the only true way to assure the quality of a printed object is
with a CT scan, typically a cost-prohibitive method for inspecting
multitudes of parts. Fortunately, not only are newer CT scanning systems
with lower price tags coming onto the market, but there are other tools
that are being used to ensure the quality of printed parts.”5


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As forecast by Grand View Research, the global 3D printing market, valued
at $13.84 billion in 2021, is expected to reach $76.17 billion by 2030,
expanding at a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.8 percent
from 2022 to 2030.

“Globally, 2.2 million units of 3D printers were shipped in 2021 and the
shipments are expected to reach 21.5 million units by 2030. The aggressive
research & development in three-dimensional printing and the growing
demand for prototyping applications from various industry verticals,
particularly healthcare, automotive, and aerospace and defense, are
expected to fuel the growth of the market.”

The prominent players in the 3D printing space include:

  • Stratasys
  • Materialise
  • EnvisionTec
  • 3D Systems
  • GE Additive
  • Autodesk
  • Made In Space
  • Canon
  • Voxeljet AG6


3D printing is in the relatively early days of being a broadly popular
technology focused on creating final products, not simply
prototypes. One of the key hurdles that the technology must overcome
is that printing in three dimensions has historically been very slow,
which makes it less appealing for consumers and less useful for industrial
applications, especially any type of mass production.

Product developers and researchers have claimed progress toward creating
objects more quickly. For example, in July 2021, Fraunhofer IWS, a group
of researchers based in Germany, reported that they were working on
technology with the potential to be “a thousand times faster” than certain
categories of current printers.7 Like many previous seemingly
revolutionary lab advancements in the field, however, this method is not
yet ready to be applied.

Further down the road, an emerging technique called “4D printing” might
see wider use. This technology allows printed objects to change their
shapes in particular ways under particular conditions, such as when they
reach a set temperature. Research on this idea is taking place at the
Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, the ARC Centre of Excellence for
Electromaterials Science, and Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of
Engineering and Applied Sciences and Wyss Institute for Biologically
Inspired Engineering, among other institutions. “4D printing enhanced by
multi-materials technology may likely [revolutionize] our ability to
control and precisely [program] materials from idea-conception to printing
shape-changing transformations,” says Skylar Tibbits of MIT’s
Self-Assembly Lab.8


Although predicting the technological future, even the near-term future,
can be problematic, analyst Michael Petch encouraged a number of 3D
experts to provide their prognostications. Some of the more fascinating
observations were offered by: 

Dr. Jeffrey Graves, President & CEO, 3D
Systems – Machine Learning – “To facilitate the
integration of AM into existing workflows, I believe machine learning will
play a critical role. For companies to maintain their competitive
position, they need to have a smart manufacturing strategy to introduce AM
effectively and efficiently into their overall manufacturing workflow.”

Avi Reichental, co-founder & CEO, Nexa3D –
Global Warming – “AM will play a key role in reversing
global warming through light-weighting, carbon footprint reduction from
localization, lower energy consumption, and waste reduction, as well as
transition to plant-based materials.” Invoking a Star Trek analogy,
Reichental believes: “We will get closer to a ‘replicator’ state,
particularly in bioprinting.”

Dr. Joshua Pearce, John M. Thompson Chair in
Information Technology and Innovation, Western University, Canada – Distributed
Recycling and Additive Manufacturing
– “Many predictions of
having a 3D printer in every home have yet to come to pass, but the steady
and quiet rise of distributed manufacturing with 3D printers at the
household scale is undeniable. 3-D printing filament is now classified as
an ‘Amazon Basic’ along with batteries and computer paper. The technology
I think will tip the scales for distributed manufacturing over the next
decade is distributed recycling and additive manufacturing (or DRAM for
short). Several open source technologies – from recyclebots that make
filament to direct waste 3D printers – have matured that allow us to use
3D printers in our own homes to recycle waste plastic into valuable


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Keep Up with Technological Changes

Considering the varied and perhaps unpredictable ways that 3D
printing technology could evolve, it will be important for
organizations in manufacturing and other directly-impacted sectors to
closely follow new developments. And organizations in other industries that
might be affected, like retail or paper-and-ink printing, would also be wise
to keep one eye on changes. Yet a challenge is to sort incremental but
probable changes from cutting-edge but uncertain developments.

Important developments are likely to come not just from large companies
but also from hobbyists. With this in mind, it is helpful to read Make
magazine, which is the periodical of choice in the field, and to follow
blogs, message boards, YouTube videos, and other channels through which
individual developers are communicating.

Consider Business Applications

The expected boom in 3D printing may not translate into booming business
for all of industries that the technology impacts. Organizations will
therefore need to focus on the ways that the technology can be used for
their business applications, not just on the broad, diverse ways that the
technology will be employed.


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About the Author

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Geoff Keston is the author of more than 250 articles
that help organizations find opportunities in business trends and
technology. He also works directly with clients to develop communications
strategies that improve processes and customer relationships. Mr. Keston
has worked as a project manager for a major technology consulting and
services company and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and a
Certified Novell Administrator.

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