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3D Printing the Future: The Move into Mainstream Serial Production Accelerates

From robotics to dentistry and from food to metals, 3D printing is exponentially maturing

It doesn’t take a great degree of imagination to picture future applications for 3D printing in robotics, as examples of how the technology is already being used in the industry easily lend themselves to extensions on concepts.

3D printing is heavily utilized in the design of robots due to the flexibility and customization that 3D printing provides.

It’s next to impossible to find exact statistics, but one estimate is that at least 40 percent of the top 2,000 manufacturers are now utilizing intelligent machine tools and 3D printing as a way of optimizing material usage and reducing waste.

In short, 3D printing helps companies build better bots and robotic manufacturers are – wisely – investing in the tools that drive down costs, increase quality, and provide a greater degree of customization solutions.

Looking at the tech with a laser focus on machinery and robotics, however, can skew one’s perception concerning all the other utilizations 3D printing is now – and will be – offering as we finish this decade.

Take dentistry for example: it’s estimated that by 2027, 3D printing could be the dominant production technology in the industry.

A report by SmartTech Analysis predicts that within the dental industry, 3D printer sales will exceed the sales of machining hardware by 2025 and thereafter the tech will be on its way to becoming the leading method of production for dental restoration and devices.

Stereolithography (SLA) and Digital Light Processing (DLP) have advanced significantly (along with the entire polymerization family of 3D printing tech).

This translates to SLA and DLP resin-based 3D printing technologies soon being able to provide both cheaper and faster customized dental solutions. Such changes, without leaning too hard on hyperbole, will be revolutionary for dentistry.

Integrating machine learning or AI algorithms with 3D printing is a trend that will grow literally exponentially, and we see this across the industry including even in novel industries such as 3D printed meat.

Startups producing these substitutes already use 3D printing to extrude layers of plant-based materials that mimic animal protein flavors and textures, but with the addition of AI tech, each individual piece of say, faux lamb kebab will be distinct due to randomization patterns inserted via algorithms – which will only make the final product taste closer to genuine animal protein.

Of course, the most important aspect of incorporating machine learning into 3D printing would be the core of machine learning itself – its ability to learn from “mistakes” and improve. This in-process control means an almost immediate reaction to deficiencies within a process.

Should predictions and trends continue, and all 3D printers become integrated with smart tech (which would include sensors and AI algorithms) the reduction in the risk of build failures and the increase in process repeatability will be significant.

That said, design software tools for additive manufacturing (AM) need to become more seamlessly integrated into popular Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software offerings.

Being an AM designer is a challenge. Engineers trained in traditional manufacturing can find their new task requirements almost counterintuitive, and it’s fair to say that not all (CAD) software has been optimized for 3D printing design requirements – but, predictably, this is changing fast.

Printing 3D metal has required a bit of a learning curve and been expensive and sometimes problematic. However, we are now entering an era of intuitive metal 3D printers that can work with materials across metallurgy including copper, stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, copper, and more.

This means that with the aid of a professional team, a firm could go from a design to a fully functional metal part in as few as 24 hours. Fast forward a couple of years and those hours will undoubtedly fall further.

It’s fair to say that manufacturers in quite a few sectors have already gained sufficient confidence in metal 3D printing solutions, and have left behind any concerns over quality control and requirements.

But many more opportunities for exploration remain in the realm of metal 3D printing and companies that vigorously ensure high-quality results and repeatable processes are looking at dominant market positions.

Finally, 3D printing is sometimes looked at via a single material lens. But the truth is composite manufacturing is what the future demands, as composites are highly sought after across a myriad of industries from automobiles to the aerospace sector.

With estimates positing composite 3D printing growing into a $10 billion business by the end of the 2020s, composite 3D printing represents the largest opportunity for revenue out of any of the examples cited above. But composite printing comes with a few caveats.

Only if the cost of such manufacturing and the streamlining of the process can be improved will composite 3D printing be able to scale in a way whereby it no longer requires such intensive resource labor and capital commitments.

The future for 3D printing is bright and there is no doubt a host of other applications that have yet to even be imagined. But it’s easy to see how by the 2030s, 3D printing will have revolutionized virtually every industry on the planet.

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