3D printing has enjoyed strong penetration in finished product manufacturing, according to companies in France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
A recent end-user survey carried out by IDC among companies using additive manufacturing technology in the aerospace and healthcare industry has revealed key insights into how 3D printers are being used in these vertical markets.
3D printing addresses the need for short-run production typical of the aerospace and healthcare industry. Having already implemented additive manufacturing in R&D and prototyping, companies in these industries now show serious commitment to small batch and customized part manufacturing through 3D printing.
A mix of technologies, from polymer-based fused deposition modelling (FDM) to metal-based selective laser sintering (SLS), is used to cost-effectively produce short runs of finished parts including aircraft engine components, aircraft interior components, medical device components, and joint replacement parts.
Lighter parts, more complex structures, cost-effectiveness on short runs, and more flexibility are some of the benefits mentioned by users when comparing 3D printing to molding and subtractive technologies.
In many cases, however, companies say it is impossible to compare technologies because 3D printing enables users to produce parts that would otherwise be unfeasible with traditional technologies (for example, requiring the assembly of more components with joint reinforcements leading to heavier parts).
As well as providing a snapshot of typical purchasing patterns and where these industries are in terms of 3D printing adoption, conversations with users offer an unbiased view of what the industry needs to further progress across R&D, prototyping, production engineering, and production.
In particular across the two industries and the four countries the following were the most mentioned aspects that users believe are still holding back the 3D printing industry from further growth:
* Materials. The limited selection of materials is still a main inhibitor for the aerospace and healthcare sector. Strength, durability, and other properties of polymers often do not meet industry requirements. Metal-based printer users often need a wide range of metal alloys and the price of material is often prohibitive.
* Hardware. Users utilising 3D printing in production applications show a need for faster and bigger devices to accelerate production. Reliability and maintenance are also huge challenges. Many users report downtime above 25%.
* Knowledge. The lack of internal knowledge is one of the main inhibitors of 3D printing adoption. In the technology implementation phase companies typically go through a long learning curve because of very limited internal knowledge and limited external support. Companies also often lack specialized staff trained to design for additive manufacturing processes. The survey highlights that consultancy and staff training services are clearly in need.
* Lack of industry-specific solutions. Companies often find that hardware and materials vendors have little understanding of the peculiarity of certain healthcare and aerospace subsectors. Users need closer relations with vendors to develop industry-specific solutions.
* Regulatory compliance. Both aerospace and healthcare players find that regulations move much slower than technology, and this can be a huge barrier to adoption.
“3D printing technology has come a long way in recent years,” says Mario Lombardo, senior consultant at IDC. “It has transitioned from exclusive use in rapid prototyping to meeting the requirements of finished part production.
“In order to further drive this industry, 3D print vendors face a number of challenges. Some of these challenges, such as device speed and reliability and material properties, will no doubt be overcome in time thanks to general technology advancements.
“Other challenges, such as lack of knowledge, lack of industry-specific solutions, and regulatory compliance, will require vendors to actively support customers and also work jointly within industry pressure groups to facilitate adoption.”