3D printing has been around for quite a long time now but its use didn’t gain traction among consumers until its patent expired. And this trend seems to only surge with time. From merely a prototyping tool, 3D printers have evolved and can now be used in constructing homes.
While that might sound fascinating, we have only scratched the surface of what lies beyond for 3D printing. But before we dive into its future, let’s look at how 3D printing works and has been impacting our lives.
- What Is 3D Printing?
- How Does 3D Printing Work?
- Where Does 3D Printing Stand at Present?
- What Is the Future of 3D Printing Like?
What Is 3D Printing?
Also known as an “additive manufacturing technology,” 3D printing is the process of printing something part by part, one layer at a time. Although there are various kinds of 3D printers, they work the same way.
For instance, to print objects, one must design 3D printer files that act as blueprints of the 3D models. The printer creates objects using the additive method, putting several files together, hence the process’s name.
After printing, these 3D objects need to go through post-processing methods to enhance their look and strength.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
A 3D printer works by forcing out molten plastic through a tiny nozzle that moves around in a precise manner under computer control. It prints one layer, waits for it to dry, and prints the next layer on top until the model you are building is complete. The quality of the printer dictates the output, which could be the perfect replica of the 3D model you created on your computer or a set of badly constructed lines of plastic sitting on top of one another. The plastic you use also dictates the quality of your models.
Where Does 3D Printing Stand at Present?
Did you know that 3D printing development dates back to the late 20th century? The first 3D printing process was invented by Charles Hull, who came up with stereolithography in 1984. However, for years, the process didn’t even become known to a lot of people. That was because the technology’s patents only covered a handful of industries.
After the technology’s patents expired, additive manufacturing (AM) technology started intriguing consumers. To further its reach, another humble innovation was born—the Internet.
At present, a few forms of 3D printing remain strictly within the walls of industries and professional applications. Thankfully, we can easily access most of these for simple use. For instance, using affordable Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printers, users can create toys, miniatures, lamps, spare parts, and more.
Not just that, stereolithography that was only available for industrial use a few years back is now accessible to consumers. Likewise, machines based on Carbon3D’s patented CLIP technology, such as Formlabs Form 2, which stemmed off the stereolithography family, are becoming popular among end-users, too.
All that said, we can deem that 3D printing has become mainstream. Already leaving the adoption life cycle behind, 3D printing has progressed toward the early adopter phase through the development of consumer machines.
What Is the Future of 3D Printing Like? What Can We Expect Beyond 2021?
While 3D printed objects are no longer that uncommon, the technology still has a long way to go. Let’s take a closer look at what we can expect.
Diversified 3D Printing Landscape
The number of players in the 3D printing market is continuously increasing. Every year, Formnext, an event that attracts 3D printing presenters from all over the world, grows bigger. More and more exhibitors join it year-on-year. That means new companies have been entering the market as startups or spinoffs, all aiming to release new products, such as:
- Spectroplast, which aims to take huge strides in silicone 3D printing.
- One-Click Metal is a developer of a low-cost laser powder bed fusion 3D printer.
- Evolve Additive Solutions, a spinoff of Stratasys, which brought us an entirely new 3D printing process based on electrophotography.
In the coming years, the number of 3D printer manufacturers is bound to grow even more. As such, the current 3D printing landscape will diversify even more.
3D Printing Software Evolution
Software, on the other hand, has been a little out of the limelight lately. A 3D printing application is entirely responsible for producing the functional prototype. Since it is a key element in creating quality 3d printer files, software processing has become simpler over time.
Then again, without the availability of software that are easier to use, the 3D printing market won’t continue to grow. That said, the design phase is definitely going to hit the spotlight, which will lead to faster and more user-friendly 3D printing design processes.
A Huge Range of Application-Specific Materials
The most common challenges related to wider 3D printing adoption are high material costs and lack of technology availability. While the first challenge is going to remain for a while, we’re going to see more companies producing more application-specific materials soon. That should lower costs indirectly.
A classic example for this scenario is Jabil, a 3D printing materials manufacturing giant. It opened a materials innovation center to ensure that it produces a decent range of 3D printing materials. On one hand, manufacturers like Jabil are putting up end-to-end facilities to develop and test polymer 3D printing powders. On the other hand, major materials producers like BASF and GKN Additive are converting themselves into solutions producers.
All in all, we will see more application-specific materials cover an even greater scope.
Growth in Composite 3D Printing
Using composites for 3D printing has inherent advantages, such as:
- Applicable in the aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, and industrial sectors
When converted into parts or functional prototypes using 3D printing, composites streamline the process and cut down manufacturing costs. Companies like Fortify and Impossible Objects have already raised millions of dollars to fund composite 3D printing technology to manufacture ambitious projects, such as bike frames.
Desktop Metal also moved into the composite space by launching its Fiber 3D printers. There have also been many collaborations between hardware and materials companies that aim to develop composite 3D printing.
Automated Post-Processing Will Become a Mandate
As early as 2020, several efforts to convert the extremely painstaking manual post-processing stage into an automatic one have been made. From 2021 and beyond, these efforts are bound to move forward at even greater force. Specifically, post-processing equipment manufacturers like AMT, DyeMansion, and PostProcess Technologies are on the verge of automating support removal cleaning and coloring polymer-based 3D printed parts.
Taking that and other factors into account, the post-processing equation should completely change within a year or two. That will specifically help manufacturers in the field of 3D printing to decrease their overall production time.
The coming years will lead to the industrialization of 3D printing. From 3D printing files to the resources that turn designs into reality will evolve at a much bigger scale. We now have injection molding and other specific manufacturing industries, and advancements are going to grow even more. Market competitiveness will also increase not only on the hardware side but also on the software side of things.
And like every other manufacturing technology’s expansion, 3D printing’s growth will drive us to associate it more and more with everyday life. That would lead us to find more applications for 3D printing.