As we mark our entry into the 4th decade of 3D Printing in 2021, we also enter a decade with the potential for radical renewal. The COVID-19 crisis has had an enormous effect on every industry and continues to propel us into a space where we need to think differently. To think about where we need to push the boundaries of innovation and creativity.

With this being said, the legacy of 3D printing starts in 2021 with three key trends: going back to the drawing board to rethink manufacturing; enabling the personalization of not only products, but also 3D printers themselves; and creating new solutions, fast.

1. Back to the Drawing Board

Everywhere around us, the COVID-19 crisis is turbo-boosting digitization. At the same time, the climate crisis continues to press upon us a sense of urgency to reconsider the status quo of our economic and industrial systems. The continued emergence of such extreme crises means that we can no longer continue the way things have been going. We need to dramatically rethink the way industries operate and how we develop solutions to new challenges.

The pressures of these types of existential threats demand more than just incremental steps forward. Incremental processes of innovation also leave little room for revolutionary technologies like AM to make an impact. But by allowing ourselves to completely rethink how we approach solutions, we open the door to radical new designs and innovative processes, something AM is naturally designed to do.

Take Airbus, for example. They recently revealed plans to accelerate the development of hydrogen-powered commercial jets and skip over the development of hybrid engines entirely. This bold jump means that by 2035, the world could see the first zero-emission, climate-neutral aircraft. Technologies like AM can play a big part in realizing these types of innovative concepts.

More than anything that came before, global crises are incentivizing industries to fast-track their technological innovation, and this climate of radical reinvention represents an opportunity for AM to really become instrumental in the areas of design and manufacturing.

2. Personalizing the Process

“It is generally known and accepted that a unique and distinguishing characteristic of 3D printing is that it significantly reduces the cost of customization of products. What is less known and often overlooked is the importance of empowering engineers and operators to also personalize and optimize the printing process as such,” says Materialise’s Executive Chairman, Peter Leys.

Why is customization of the process so important? Is the ideal AM world not a world where the operator simply pushes the start button and then prints whatever product that needs to be printed based on a pre-installed set of parameters that comes with the machine?

Well, the illusion of a world where one standard printing process fits all applications is wrong, short-sighted and, last but not least, dangerously boring.

First, it is wrong because 3D printing is such a flexible technology that its potential would by definition be under-used if only a few standard processes would be deployed regardless of the product that is being manufactured. If you want to use additive manufacturing to its fullest extent, then you have to tweak each and every parameter of the machine and the process to the specific product that you intend to print. In a prototyping context, this possibility and need was less crucial as the efforts to adapt the process to a particular product could only be depreciated over, at best, a very small batch of products. As AM is more and more used for mass production, the need to come up with the most optimal process for a particular product obviously becomes more and more relevant.

Second, the one-process-fits-all-products philosophy is short-sighted, because it completely overlooks the fact that personalization and localization go hand-in-hand. Or to put it differently: 3D printers can only be deployed in a distributed manufacturing setting, if the local operators have the freedom and ability to adjust the process to their local reality. Typically, the primary parameters would be set centrally and then more specific secondary parameters would be adjusted by the engineers in their respective locations to meet their local needs.

Finally, a world where an operator cannot contribute the added value of their knowledge and expertise to the printing process would be a dull push-the-start-button world. The world of standard processes would not only be boring; it would also be dangerous, because it would be a world with less competition as 3D printing facilities would not be able to distinguish themselves from other operators by adding their personal expertise and experience to the process. And lack of competition means, at the end of the day, lack of innovation.

So, the more operators are empowered to fine-tune, optimize and personalize the 3D printing process, the more the value of 3D printing will be unleashed. Yes, 3D printing should become faster, cheaper and more reliable. But to get there, 3D printing should also, and foremost, become more and more personal.

3. No Time to Waste

Materialise Vice President for Medical, Brigitte de Vet says, “COVID-19 has launched the world into a state of constant urgency. Healthcare professionals as well as regular consumers have been confronted with shortages and quality issues for both essential medical products and everyday consumer goods, a consequence of a global market model that hinges on centralized, mass-manufacturing. Things we used to take for granted are no longer necessarily available or even appropriate, and new solutions need to be developed fast.”

Digitization is accelerating in every area as companies are investing in technologies that can help them adapt to this new normal of filling supply gaps, remote work and local solutions. But as part of this adoption, they need to make choices, and they will choose based on risk, cost and quick return on investment (ROI).

AM is one of those digital technologies that can deliver short-term ROI, low-cost manufacturing, and low risk, but the entry point has typically come with a lengthy learning curve. Some companies started the AM adoption process ten years ago and are well-positioned to make greater shifts to the technology, but companies new to AM no longer have the luxury of time.

Brigitte continues, “As a result, we see a growing trend for services that guide companies along this path. We see this for example in the medical world, where the value of personalized medicine is well known, but there is a low tolerance for uncertainty. New solutions need to offer strong evidence that they are safe and effective and can deliver a high-quality standard of care. Consultancy services can help minimize the risk of such big investments and accelerate the timelines by sharing their expert knowledge of what the technology can and can’t do, and the right manufacturing method needed for each unique case.”

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