For the first time, it seems patently obvious where 3D printing is heading. There is almost universal agreement on what is going on and what the future developments are to be. Its a comforting time in 3D Printing for everyone. I call 2018, the year of the clipboard because this year we go in the compliance people, the ISO people, the procurement teams and there was a sea of clipboards from spreadsheet to shining spreadsheet. The end of the year is always a nice time to take stock of things and to see into the cloudy mists of a hazy future. In this post we’ll take stock of the major developments in 2018. For a more detailed review that goes into the major trends in the form of linking them to news stories please do have a look at our 2018 the Year in Review post.
Compliance, qualification, documentation, and standards. This is probably the biggest overall trend in our industry at the moment. We’ve gone from a wild wild west cowboy show to one of the large corporates navigating this uneven terrain with lawyers and ISO standards people. Standardization and better documentation, as well as handling in materials, is sure to eliminate a lot of problems. Qualification of parts, processes and materials for aerospace applications is a surefooted, and expensive, step that many OEMs and Tier 1’s have taken this year. FDA qualification of materials and implants has been especially strong in orthopedics and DMLS (SLM, Laser Powder Bed Fusion). Particularly in titanium because it is the safest material for “hard” implants at the moment there is significant investment. Tens of thousands of implants are being made. All around us we’re getting more boring and focusing more on safety and compliance. This is good for us but a long slog for many.
Effects for 2019: There will be a shakeout in medical, some corporate 3D printing applications and high-end machines over certifications. Some ISO compliant companies are prohibited from doing business with people who don’t have the same certifications for example. So a plethora of possible FDM printers for aviation is quickly reduced to two by such implications.
Professionalization & investment. Across our market, our tech-reliant industry is finally attracting more accounting, marketing, sales, and organizational managers. Over the past four years, the grown-ups have moved in and our lovable nerds have been replaced with professionals. In some cases, this has lead to companies losing sight of what matters but, generally, companies have invested in people who have created more professional organizations. Over the past years, this has caused some companies to outperform others. Everything has gotten better from HR departments to websites to HR stands. Meanwhile some firms have spent tens of millions with very little to show for it but the dissipating cloud of hype and others will continue to PowerPoint their way to tens of millions more.
Effects for 2019: You can no longer just half-ass stuff in 3D printing, a higher level of professional engagement is expected and will lead to more companies getting crushed as they can not compete. Meanwhile higher headcounts and cost structures will drive up prices. Yes, the Apple guy will make your stuff look all Appley but he’ll also expect Apple-like control, production values, spend and margins.
Automated Post Processing. The sudden acceptance as EBM as a manufacturing technology for aerospace was a wake-up call to some. Here post processing was enabling viable parts out of what was first considered a nonstarter in aviation. Similar improvements in end-use consumer parts through coloring, support removal, depowdering, surface treatment, and automation are having ever larger effects on our industry. A third of part costs are doing to post-processing and things as prosaic as moving parts through a plant. Investment in post processing machines and complete lines shows that people are actually manufacturing.
Effects for 2019: There will be growth in post processing companies, more alliances between post-processing equipment companies and software vendors for compliance and throughput as well as dedicated 3D printing production lines being built from scratch. Overall part costs will be lowered.
The Octagon: OEMs used to just toss kits over the fence and not worry what happened to them. Now we’re seeing a shift where companies that control for, develop their own, have knowledge of or take into account all the sides of the 3D printing octagon are outperforming those who do not.
Effects for 2019: Especially for the Business to Business market more control over software, firmware, procedures and machines will enable wider adoption and growth for those companies that provide it. More control over the Octagon leads to a better 3D printed part at a lower cost. You can read about the 3D printing octagon here.
New software entrants. More and more companies are entering the 3D printing software game. From all kinds of backgrounds from CAD to simulation, companies are entering the 3D Printing market. Some seem, serious contenders, while others are simply slapping a label on an existing product.
Effects for 2019: Some efficiencies may be had here but overall in 2019 its just going to be rather confusing for everyone what software they need to have and what it is supposed to do.
More consumer products. Insoles, glasses, and design products are steadily growing. Costs are coming down and firms are moving towards finding end-use parts where 3D printing can compete head-on pricewise with existing products. These value propositions and the requisite manufacturing and software toolchain are difficult to identify and assemble but increasingly will become more prevalent.
Effects for 2019: We will hopefully see the breakthrough of 3D printing into millions of shoe soles, insoles, slippers, headphones, eyeglasses or another application in 2019. We have to demonstrate success and the overwhelming market share in In The Ear hearing aids, jewelry molds and some dental applications can’t be our only successes in catering to millions of people.
Applications: All across 2018 everyone was looking for applications. People wanted customers with real needs and millions of parts who needed a solution for a particular application. Whether it be a medical or materials company that wanted real impact or a company wanting to leverage their heft in our industry we saw a real focus on applications in 2018 and this is intensifying towards the end of 2018.
Effects for 2019: It’s time for some business development people to stop twirling about and bring home the bacon because there are people out there with a problem and there is a huge demand for certain applications in medical, industrial, aviation and consumer products but only a few people are making the right connections. Business development is great because its often difficult to assess how well a bizdev person is actually doing but this is the time when the future is being built and some large companies are finding their path while others are comically flailing.
A 3D printer on every desktop. Remember when everyone was to have a 3D printer on their desktop, like five years ago? Meanwhile, 3D printers have gotten better, if you’re willing to spend $5000 or they’ve gotten cheaper at $200. In 2018 we’re already seeing improvements in the $2500 to $5000 systems and design for manufacturing improvements on the $200 systems. With considerable reliability increases and better quality parts, a semi-working $500 printer is possible. We still will have the problem that no one can do CAD and no one wants to create but for schools and a lot of semi-techy people, a better version of the low-cost systems we have today could be tenable. Perhaps in 2019 we’ll get a Nerd printer, a $500 kind of working machine that would work for the committed nerd rather than the over committed 3D printer operator.
Effects for 2019: Hopefully an easier to operate and more reliable $500 system that can work with TLC for a much wider audience than the current one million 3D printer enthusiasts which will result in a bigger 3D printing market.
Real visible applications for Microfluidics and soft robotics. This is more hope than reason. I’m completely obsessed with microfluidics research which has the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing in a completely fundamental way. Likewise, soft robotics can fundamentally change how things are created. The intersection of those two areas and 3D printing could be at the forefront of what we do for the next 100 years. Both soft robotics and microfluidics lack a very visible use case that many people will understand however. It would be great to see a soft robotics Invisalign or a microfluidics cancer test that everyone can use for example.
Effects for 2019: Probably nothing to be fair but I hope that corporate boards and scientists the world over start to realize how microfluidics and soft robotics can alter the world.
Manufacturing Noise. Many OEMs and companies are making a lot of noise about manufacturing with 3D printing. To be clear this is mostly talk and bull. Most 3D printers are barely functional for prototyping. Most new technology claims are just that claims. Most of the manufacturing that people mention is a question of one-off experiments and Proof of Concept stuff. To be clear: the future of 3D printing is squarely in the manufacturing field making unique mass production items at scale. Especially in medical, automotive, consumer and aerospace 3D printing will become a viable technology for millions of items in many materials. Everything that will matter to you will be 3D printed. Not the stupid stuff, not the low margin stuff, not the commoditized stuff, just the meaningful things. But, 90% of the manufacturing claims made are marketing claims and have not been borne out on the actual production floor so we need to be cognizant of that.
Effects for 2019: Hopefully more manufacturing cases and more applications being turned into millions of sold items. We’re on the cusp of a 3D printing manufacturing evolution but the heavy lifting has yet to be done.