Why 3D printing is on the rise in industrial manufacturing

3D printing technologies are challenging plant teams to rethink conventional approaches to design, tooling, and inventory.

By Thomas Wilk, Editor in Chief

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The Plant Services 2015 Disruptive Technology series is a quarterly look at technology innovations that are generating rapid changes in how plant managers and engineers approach their jobs. The series launches with a look at the intersection of 3D printing and industrial manufacturing.

For a technology that was developed in the 1980s, 3D printing took its time to arrive in the general marketplace. Advances in the wider worlds of scanning and additive manufacturing have recently propelled 3D printing beyond hobbyist awareness, and are leaving lasting marks in the worlds of aerospace, automotive, and medicine.

These technologies are now gaining a firm toehold in manufacturing. In a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 67% of surveyed manufacturers said that they are currently implementing 3D printing in some way, with 25% more indicating that they plan on adopting it in the future.

The market numbers support these trends: the global market for 3D printing services and materials was estimated by Canalys to be $3.8 billion in 2014 and is projected to increase to $16.2 billion by 2018, for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 45.7%.  IBISWorld estimates the U.S. share of that market at $1.8 billion, with a projected CAGR of 15.7% over the same time period.

For this story, the first in our disruptive technology series, Plant Services interviewed several figures involved with 3D printing to get their thoughts on why 3D printing is on the rise in industrial manufacturing, as well as the kinds of benefits that plant teams are already seeing from their engagement with these technologies.

Additive, not subtractive

As its name suggests, a 3D printer prints in three dimensions instead of two, by selectively depositing a build material in successive layers and then fusing those layers together. This process has given rise the adoption of the term "additive manufacturing" (or AM) as a catch-all phrase to cover the wide variety of technologies that have been developed to manufacture objects in this way. (This also has given rise to a new term, "subtractive manufacturing," to describe traditional machining processes where raw material is cut, ground away, or otherwise removed in consistent, controlled fashion.)

Who is a good candidate for these technologies? "If someone has a special device they need for their manufacturing floor, their plant, or their lab, you can 3D print something that you can’t manufacture," says Bruce Bradshaw, VP Marketing, North America at Stratasys. "You can print 10 different versions, all slightly different, to find out which one’s going to work best for what you need. Now you just need to decide which printing technology to use."

Stratasys deploys two distinct technologies – Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, which prints using thermoplastic materials; and PolyJet, which uses photopolymers – depending on the customer application and materials requirements.

"FDM prints using real-world plastics, the same ones found in your phone, laptop, airline interiors," says Bradshaw. "So if I’m doing an end-use part, I have the advantage of using the same material off my 3D printer that I’m going to use in my traditional manufacturing process, so it will react in the same way as my end-use part in a functional testing issue."

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  • <p>Great report! The best part is 3D Printing will also attract the younger generation into manufacturing.</p>

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