Amanda Boxtel standing in the 3-D printed Ekso hybrid robotic suit in Budapest. Image: 3D Systems Corp.Thirty years have passed since 3-D printers first appeared, but only recently have they hinted at a new era of manufacturing. The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp., Morrisville, N.C. This early device, based on stereolithography, gave way to the first truly practical 3-D printing, or “3DP”, technology patented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993. Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a large growth in sales of these machines as their prices dropped substantially. Today, 3-D printers have become more of a staple in the current manufacturing space, while still piquing hobbyist interest. The 3-D printing process usually works by selectively binding powder particles together, layer-by-layer, using a high-resolution inkjet printhead. A thin layer of powder is spread across the build area specified by CAD software, creating layers.

Propelled by the promise of inexpensive, highly customizable manufacturing, the 3-D printer manufacturing industry has surged over the past five years, driven by rapid technological developments, falling costs and new applications for 3-D printing technology. The 3-D printing industry has grown at a faster pace than expected, reaching about $2.2 billion worldwide in 2012, according to market research from Wohlers Associates. In the U.S., IBISWorld reported the 3-D printer market in 2014 at $1 billion with a CAGR of 22.8% over the period of 2009 to 2014. While still a small industry—as far as standalone 3-D printer manufacturers with 6,933 employees and 50 businesses—3-D printing is increasingly used in medical device and aircraft manufacturing, and is becoming a staple in some manufacturing processes.

The editors of R&D Magazine surveyed their readers to see what trends are important in the 3-D printing industry.

Survey says...
According to our survey, 47% of the respondents use 3-D printing as their additive manufacturing technique of choice, with stereolithography (19%), fused deposition modeling (17%) and direct metal laser sintering (15%) as other common options. While 18% of the respondents already own a 3-D printer in their laboratory/organization, 39% are looking to purchase one; 43% say they aren’t interested in purchasing a 3-D printer as it doesn’t fit their research needs or their budgets.

For the respondents who utilize 3-D printers for their research and manufacturing needs, a majority, 21%, say Stratasys, Eden Prairie, Min., is their leading vendor, followed by 3D Systems Corp. (18%) and MakerBot Industries LLC (16%). Common applications are in life sciences (19%), medical devices (14%) and aerospace (13%). Hobbies and personal use represented 10% of the respondents choices.

What improvements are needed to current 3-D printing technologies? Many respondents cited cost improvements (60%), saying a decrease in cost would spark more interest in purchasing, as cost is everything when purchasing equipment for laboratories/organizations and payback is expected. 46% of the respondents cited material compatibility as a needed improvement, saying that more complex manufacturing efforts drive a need for more material integration into the technique, especially in applications regarding aerospace and medical devices. Respondents also cited accuracy (32%) and ease-of-use (30%) as other improvements needed.

A vendor's take: Addressing cost, materials and ease-of-use
The decreasing cost of 3-D printers and their increasing adoption across government, industrial and academic sectors is expected to spur increased demand in coming years. Also, manufacturers of the technology are continuously focusing on the development of new 3-D printing materials, which would provide improved surface finish, and high-strength 3-D models.

The “faster, better, cheaper” rule applies in every aspect of the 3-D printer industry. 3-D printers that were commercialized a decade ago have now become much more affordable and usable, with increased accuracy and repeatability. The rapid development of consumer 3-D printers was started with the rise of “printer kits” for serious weekend tinkerers, moving into shrink-wrapped, usable out-of-the box printers like 3D System’s Cube.

The past four years have marked a growth of the personal or “prosumer” type of devices, such as 3-D printers used by hobbyists or professionals doing some side work. Manufacturers like MakerBot are leading the charge in this space. The past two years have seen marked growth in the manufacturing space, with more high-end industrial 3-D printing technologies like laser sintering for end-use manufacturing. This is especially true of the aerospace industry which is quickly adopting EOS’ (Munich, Germany) direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) for its promotion of parts integration and the ability to make complex shapes. The medical industry is following suit with an emphasis on patient-matched, customized products such as metal orthopedic implants and surgical cutting and drilling guides.

According to 3D Systems Corp., R&D into 3-D printing has been sparked worldwide, with amazing innovations.

Meanwhile, the drive for multi-material printing, full-color printing and fabrication-grade printing continues. Some of the biggest improvements made to 3-D printers in the past three years are in the materials. In the case of Stratasys, getting involved in nylons and polycarbonates is important as these are commonly used in manufacturing processes.

Stratasys’ Objet500 Connex3 color multi-material 3-D printer.The range of materials being printed in 3-D has been expanding rapidly. 3D Systems can print more than 100 different materials, from food ingredients to waxes, ceramics, plastics and even metals. The possibilities of adapting yet more materials with which to 3-D print is causing a lot of excitement in the world combined with easy solutions for consumers.

Stratasys, in January 2014, released the Objet500 Connex3 color multi-material printer, a 3-D printer able to combine colors with multi-material 3-D printing. Marketed for product design, engineering and manufacturing, the 3-D printer features a unique triple-jetting technology that combines droplets of three base materials to produce parts with unlimited combinations of rigid, flexible and transparent color materials, as well as color digital materials, in a single print run. The ability to achieve the characteristics of an assembled part without assembly or painting is a time-saver, helping product manufacturers validate designs and make good decisions earlier before committing to manufacturing, and bringing products to market faster.

There is also a growing trend for improved industrial 3-D printers that are streamlined enough to use in a standard office space, with a growing range of affordable print solutions for professional, dental and jewelry users. Better ease-of-use to design on 3-D printers and the capability of having a wide variety of files available allow anybody, even if they don’t have a four-year degree in engineering and design, to use these machines.

Growth areas for 3-D printing
The major growth area for 3-D printing technologies is coming from the manufacturing sector. While analysts may indicate that real growth will come from the personal printing space, the growth in the manufacturing space will come from companies as they continue to look at this technology to customize or semi-customize many of the products they are designing that may need rapid changes.

“If you look at some very high-end European automobiles, you will see as many as 25 to 30 parts that have been 3-D printed,” says Jon Cobb, VP of marketing, Stratasys. “You wouldn’t know because the parts are wrapped in exotic leather or carbon fiber materials; but, in fact, they are utilizing 3-D printing for parts today.” And this trend will be seen more as time goes on.

Another area that is already seeing a lot of development is in custom medical devices. For example, 3-D technologies are used in custom prosthetics—such as the Ekso robotic suit that is 3-D printed to match a patient’s exact shape—as well as internal devices and implants. A number of organizations have already received FDA 510(k) approvals for additively manufactured implants, and other submissions are in the works.

According to 3D Systems, an R&D team in Cardiff, Wales, CARTIS, is already successfully using their technologies for custom-printed implants and surgical guides to enhance facial reconstruction surgeries.

For EOS, the biggest growth area is aerospace. DMLS is already used for production at several major companies, and the company expects to see adoption of high-temperature PEEK thermoplastic parts for commercial aircraft.

The overall beauty of 3-D printing technology is that it can be adopted in any industry where there’s a match between the customers’ needs and the production capabilities of a company’s systems and materials. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by the imagination and ambition of the people behind the technology.