After reviewing different types of 3D software solutions and understanding why they are required in the first step of an end-to-end digital manufacturing workflow, let’s examine the second step, which is 3D printing technologies for producing end-use parts. Although most of the existing solutions today are for prototyping applications, the vision is to find ways to implement various technologies in traditional manufacturing processes. The values are clear: shorter time to market, cost reduction, weight reduction, the ability to design and manufacture complicated geometries, avoiding costly inventories and more. However, this task is not easy due to the simple reason that manufacturing processes are not like prototyping. They have a different set of standards—much higher ones.
What are the recent developments in the industry of new and innovative 3D printing technologies that aim to offer more manufacturing-oriented solutions? What makes them more suitable for manufacturing compared to others? And where do they place the big players of the industry?
Prototyping vs. manufacturing
In most cases, a prototype is exactly as it sounds: a validity step before moving onto manufacturing the final product. A mistake at this point of the development cycle will not be that costly and will not delay the process significantly. When it comes to manufacturing end-use parts, however, the requirements are much higher in terms of productivity, accuracy, repeatability, strength and use of specific approved materials for different industries. Although “manufacturing with 3D printing” sounds great, this is why the implementation is not that simple.
If we examine new 3D printing technologies that aim to offer digital manufacturing solutions, we see how they were designed and set by people who know the real pains of traditional manufacturing. They understand what it takes to develop and use 3D printing in a real manufacturing environment, considering many factors such as the use of software that can communicate inside large organizations and post-processing steps that are necessary for the automation of the entire process.
3D startups vs. big players
With a clear “manufacturing vision” of the industry for upcoming decades, what are the differences between the solutions 3D printing startup companies offer compared to the large legacy players in the industry?
The first word associated with startup companies in the 3D printing industry is often innovation. The reason there are more and more companies being founded in AM is because they are trying to find solutions to problems the big players haven’t yet solved, or to address things they do not focus on. Every startup founder wants to make his company the next big thing, but for that they need to develop a groundbreaking technology, raise funding, recruit the right team and work hard to break the familiar boundaries of existing technologies.
If we look back, we can find companies that have managed to make big steps towards offering new technologies for manufacturing applications. Here are four examples: Essentium3D with their FlashFuse™ technology that aims to solve the weak points of existing extrusion technologies: speed, strength and cost. Their electric welding solution produces parts 5-15 times faster than traditional FDM and with a strength comparable to injection molded parts. Nexa3D with a Lubricant Sublayer Photo-Curing – LPC™ technology. Unlike DLP, where edge-to-edge performance is compromised due to optical distortions, this technology delivers uniform, distortion-free images to all areas of the build plate, ensuring part-to-part uniformity and accuracy. NXT Factory with their Quantum Laser Sintering™ technology that achieves four times the print speed of traditional laser sintering technologies and is on par with the print speed of Multi-Jet Fusion printers. With its removable, robotically guided print chamber, it provides a polymer-based production alternative to traditional injection molding with full Industry 4.0 capabilities designed for fully automated lights-out 24/7 operation. Velo3D with their Intelligent Metal Fusion™ solution that separates itself from existing powder bed fusion solutions with its unique ability to print low angles and overhangs below 10 degrees, as well as large diameters and inner tubes up to 40 mm without the need for supports. This not only eliminates the need for post-processing, but it overcomes the “45 degree rule”—a boundary requiring supports at angles less than 45 degrees.
Big legacy players
I will split them into two groups: large players that are relatively new and legacy players that have been active in the market for several years. The first group includes companies like HP, GE and GF, which are less focused on prototyping since they have no legacy products from the past. They have adopted a strategy to develop solutions that, by definition, must be part of an entire end-to-end workflow, suitable for large organizations in terms of software and hardware, but also from the materials properties side. They understand that without having the right materials for a particular industry, true manufacturing can’t exist. Also, one of the key elements of their solutions is automation, which is required to truly implement 3D printing in manufacturing processes.
The second group consists of veteran companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems, which still carry their professional prototyping-oriented portfolio. Looking at their financial results, each of these companies sell over $150 million each quarter (equipment, software, materials and services), which means the manufacturing vision has still a way to go. Having said that, they seem to move much slower than startup companies and manufacturing solutions are only part of their product portfolio and future vision. As public companies, their mindset is generally more focused on generating revenue for the next quarter, while startup companies are set for a future vision that can become reality in only several years.
To conclude, while veteran companies still lead the market with generating revenue, the future belongs to the bold ones, big or small; those that will focus on providing the right solutions for heavy industries looking for a smooth transition from traditional to digital manufacturing.