In recent years, 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) systems have exploded in popularity with engineers and manufacturers due to their ability to print parts that would be impossible to make using other methods. Tech Briefs posed questions to 3D printing/AM industry executives to get their views on issues such as metal printing, new materials, and environmental sustainability.

Our roundtable participants are Kevin Brigden, Applications Engineer at Renishaw; Kent Firestone, Chief Executive Officer of Stratasys Direct Manufacturing; Mark Norfolk, President and Chief Executive Officer of Fabrisonic; Brad Rothenberg, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of nTopology; and Greg Thompson, Global Product Manager for 3D Printing at Protolabs.

Tech Briefs: Let’s start with a topic that is especially timely: 3D printing’s impact in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. We’ve heard about how 3D printers are rapidly producing needed personal protective equipment. In what ways is your equipment being used in this application?

Greg Thompson: 3D printing is playing a key role in the fight against COVID-19. Not only can additive quickly validate new ideas and designs, it can help accelerate initial volumes of product out into the market where it is so critically needed. Across the globe, we have partnered with multiple customers needing critical COVID-19 components for masks and ventilator production. Efforts in this pandemic have been a great example of how 3D printing plays a role alongside, not a replacement for, traditional manufacturing processes, depending on where we are in the development cycle and the number of parts needed at the time. We have produced parts in all four of our services: CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal, and 3D printing.

Brad Rothenberg: There are a few different COVID-19-related projects that we are helping with. We are working with a couple different partners to design and print critical-need flu swabs for COVID-19 testing. One of the initial designs we helped with passed the initial clinical review and is getting fast-tracked for trials to then ramp up to production, which is very exciting. Everyone in the additive industry has been willing to come together and focus on finding solutions.

Kent Firestone: We are helping to combat spread of the COVID-19 virus by printing thousands of face shields that will be distributed to health providers and hospitals. Currently, we’re printing 1,200 face shields per day across six manufacturing facilities in North America. The face shields are comprised of a 3D-printed visor and a clear plastic shield that covers the entire face. In addition, we’ve joined a coalition of companies and universities to fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Tech Briefs: More affordable metal printers have entered the market, enabling metal additive manufacturing to be used for true production; however, metal 3D printing is still very expensive and build size often is limited. How soon will the advantages of metal printers outweigh the limitations?

Firestone: It’s not surprising that metal printing is one of the most coveted technologies today. The biggest advantage of metal 3D printing is the ability to create an end-use part that can’t be made using traditional manufacturing. There are limitations to metal 3D printing but when people learn how to design for the process, the benefits will start to outweigh the limitations. Just like any other new technology, when it’s first launched, there will be early adopters but we won’t get heavy adoption until you see speeds improve and part costs come down.

Kevin Brigden: Both the advantages and limitations of metal 3D printing are inherently linked to the strength of the application. While much is said about the design flexibility AM affords, it’s still rarely front and center of how the technology is utilized. I believe we are in a period of considerable positive change on this front, with numerous initiatives in both public and private domains addressing this challenge. I would anticipate over the next five years, we will see an increased seriousness about how metal 3D printing is leveraged.

Thompson: Metal additive manufacturing is already in vise for true production, with 3D-printed metal components on airplanes, in human bodies, and in our homes. Many of the new machines in development are exploring ways to decrease the print time with multi-laser systems or jetting processes. While these systems evolve, many manufacturers can take advantage of the material reduction, reducing labor and assembly steps, and improving overall part performance that additive’s design freedom enables.

Rothenberg: In a lot of cases, the advantages today of additive manufacturing already outweigh the limitations. If you look to a product like the GE Catalyst engine, it utilizes metal AM heavily throughout. Metal AM, in this case, is better in that it produces a lighter-weight, higher-performing engine. By combining multiple engine parts and functions into one, there are fewer parts to source and lead times are reduced. That lowers costs. Metal AM, like other manufacturing technologies, is application-specific, so for the right applications, the advantages significantly outweigh the limitations.

Mark Norfolk: Technology is always application-dependent. We have customers today that are ramping up to print millions of parts per year. This application requires custom 3D printing machines but that is true of any high-volume production. At the same time, we have utilized Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM) to print parts almost five feet in length. Based on our experience, there is a myriad of applications where metal printers already outweigh the limitations.

Tech Briefs: Materials for 3D printing are becoming more diverse, with composites and ceramics being key new emerging materials. What are the obstacles to development of new engineered materials for industrial 3D printing?

Thompson: Material advancement is one of the most exciting areas within the additive space right now. Everyone recognizes the challenge to improve material properties closer to traditional manufacturing methods, especially in polymers. With increasing demand and more open systems, nearly every major material company is researching new resins and powders to bring to the market. This is a step-change in the amount of funding and engineering that the industry simply wasn’t able to bring on its own in the past.

Norfolk: The first three obstacles for hybrid materials to overcome are qualification, qualification, qualification. We routinely print metal matrix composites for high specific strength. We are printing dissimilar metal laminates to create bulk material properties engineered to a specific application. We are embedding non-metallics into large printed metallic structures to create a protective shell around a valuable material. In each case, these advances can’t move forward until someone signs a piece of paper stating that they will meet the intended need. For every hybrid material, qualification is the roadblock to full-on production.

Firestone: 3D printing with composite materials isn’t new. Ceramics have been around for some time but have not been widely available. We’ve been building with composite materials for more than 20 years. In the past few years, we’ve developed many high-end composites and high-temperature plastics and those decisions have been driven by customer demand. So rather than calling it an obstacle, I call it a prerequisite. When the need gets high enough, manufacturers will strive to find a solution.

Brigden: Fundamentally, it’s the fact that only one set of physics exists for all of us. Considering laser powder bed fusion (L-PBF) in particular, we are utilizing a discrete energy source in the form of focused laser energy. We are traversing this laser (increasingly, lasers) across the build area and battling competing priorities of productivity, melt-pool dynamics, and the underlying mechanics of how materials melt and solidify. We have seen the use of multiple lasers unlock a realm of material possibilities previously considered extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Rothenberg: From the design-for-AM side, it will be critical to certify the performance of new materials and capture that as data that can be incorporated into advanced modeling software. A successful product design can be thought of as the result of putting material in the best place that is balancing a number of requirements, and precise material properties are key to that balance.

Tech Briefs: One of the most intriguing applications for 3D printing is in wearables, particularly in the medical field. Flexible materials and the ability to 3D-print sensors are properties that are ideal for wearables. What other applications for 3D printing will we see in the wearables market?

Rothenberg: Anything that has to be customized to fit a body part, frankly, is terrain for advanced design software and select AM systems. Wide-open innovation is pretty much possible now and workflows will be captured to make the creative process for wearables easier and more reliable.

Thompson: Wearables are just one prime example of how the additive industry can support creating customized products. The rules for “one size fits all” are no longer in play. Over time, we could see additively manufactured wearable devices tailored to patient-specific populations helping optimize fit, ergonomics, or even personalized aesthetics.

Norfolk: One of our three main markets is embedded sensors. Using our solid-state welding process, we can embed fragile sensors anywhere in a metal part. These sensors are already in use for aerospace, nuclear, and medical applications. We see embedded electronics for health monitoring to be a huge growth market.

Brigden: From the metals side, we’ve been involved in production of dental, maxillofacial, and most recently, drug delivery systems. In the wearables sector, I suspect we’re barely just scraping the surface of what can be achieved with metals. I can see real benefits today from leveraging metal AM in the production of complex tooling inserts to produce polymer wearable components.

Firestone: When we talk about wearables, the biggest challenge is the high-volume requirements. Anytime you’re competing against something with such a high volume, AM will never be cost-competitive. The strength of using additive manufacturing is when you’re dealing with low volumes or mass customization.

Tech Briefs: With the growing demand for 3D-printed parts, online prototyping services have become more attractive. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using online services versus purchasing the printing equipment?

Norfolk: Like all things bought online, the Internet experience parses out important personal interaction for communicating requirements. For models that show geometry, online vendors are great. As the requirements of the part increase in complexity, it is harder and harder to extract the true potential of additive via an online relationship. Most of our home run applications have occurred as our engineers — knowledgeable on what is and isn’t possible — collaborate directly with the customer, who can clearly articulate the engineering need. The truly transformative applications only happen with a collaborative design/manufacturing team.

Thompson: Additive manufacturing is definitely not a “plug and play” manufacturing method. Each combination of machine and material is a little bit different, so it takes years of expertise and process development to make high-quality parts repeatedly and reliably. An additive partner like us can provide a much wider range of technology, material, and post-processing capabilities that an individual company typically would want to invest in.

Rothenberg: That’s a tossup for the experts in each domain to debate. It’s a healthy dynamic, though, for finding efficiency and advancing the sector. Let’s watch what develops. Both groups might be driven equally by advances in computational engineering software as this unfolds.

Brigden: In polymer printing, these services have been tremendously beneficial in accelerating adoption of the technology and significantly lowering the barrier to entry. I would suggest, though, that metal printing has lagged somewhat here purely because of the higher degree of complexity in achieving good results. One of the benefits of polymer printing is an ability to mix and match parts on demand. In metal printing, however, the mechanical properties and metallurgy of the parts are connected to their thermal history and therefore, mixing and matching parts from one build to another doesn’t necessarily carry over all that well. I can foresee metals starting to catch up in this regard.

Firestone: The clear advantage of online prototyping services is that you have access to many machines and thousands of suppliers. And if you’re working with a 3D printing broker, you get the advantages of cost and speed by putting your project out there and getting companies to fight for the job in terms of pricing. The disadvantage comes when a customer wants to take a design and move it into the manufacturing setting. Anytime you make end-use parts, you must show traceability, meet quality standards, and frequently need to certify the machines and manufacturing sites to customer specifications. This level of control often isn’t available when you select an online prototyping service.

Tech Briefs: The 3D printing industry needs to consider the environmental impact of the technology. How does the industry currently address sustainability and what more needs to be done to reduce the impact on the environment?

Thompson: Sustainability is a topic of discussion in the manufacturing industry, and 3D printing manufacturing is no exception. 3D printing resins can be re-used and additive technologies inherently utilize less raw materials for well-designed parts on optimized build platforms because they are not subtractive We realize the important role we must play in being good stewards of both our customers and the environment.

Brigden: Clearly, one of the largest benefits of metal AM is a considerable improvement in “buy to fly” ratio of material consumed versus material used in application. The cost of the powder material itself is one of the dominating factors of current AM technology (the other being the capital investment on the equipment). Metal powder production is fairly energy-intensive and as such, development of both the underlying production technology and the supply chain model require maturation. For the machine vendors’ part, we have to ensure that we use materials as efficiently as we can. Recycling of metallic components, scavenging of waste materials from CNC machining processes, etc. could be a particularly interesting story for powder production in the coming years.

Norfolk: Additive manufacturing’s environmental impact can be seen from the perspective of either the printers or the printed. Manufacturers unanimously agree that reduction in the length of a supply chain will ultimately reduce the environmental footprint of producing parts. As part production shifts from traditional manufacturing to additive, the more immediate environmental impact is coming from the printed parts versus the impact on these supply chains. Additive’s enabling impact on the efficiency increases of traditional power generation technologies or in the enabling of production of green transportation technologies is where we’re seeing additive’s immediate benefits.

Firestone: We have a recycling program to help make it easy to keep 3D printing green. The program includes returning used cartridges, canisters, spools, print engines, and containers. One of the things the industry does is to continue to work with recyclable materials and reducing waste. Additionally, 3D printing processes are inherently less wasteful due to the method of build with just the materials needed, instead of the waste produced in subtractive methods. We need to continue to be more efficient, reduce scrap, and recycle more material.

Tech Briefs: The term “The Internet Effect” means 3D printing will impact manufacturing the same way the Internet has impacted retail. Is the industry at this point yet and if not, do you see 3D printing having this type of impact in the near future?

Rothenberg: The Internet, depending on how you look at it, has completely transformed (and in some cases, destroyed) traditional retail with the emergence of the big players like Amazon. I do not see this happening with 3D printing. 3D printing is one manufacturing technology that has some incredible advantages but it is not going to take over the world, with every single part ever being 3D-printed. However, like the Internet, you will see entirely new industries built and enabled by 3D printing, just like the printing press spun up entirely new industries like newspapers and books.

Firestone: 3D printing has and will continue to have an impact on manufacturing. It will continue to pull market share from traditional manufacturers. We see 3D printing as a complementary technology rather than a replacement for traditional manufacturing. There are things you can only do with 3D printing that you can’t with traditional. The more complex the part design, the more it fits with 3D printing. The simpler the part design, the more it fits with traditional manufacturing. It’s not a “one size fits all” situation.

Thompson: 3D printing will no doubt be a part of the next wave of manufacturing transformation. It naturally fits in the digital thread and connected world of Manufacturing 4.0. Additive’s inherent design freedom and technology advantages enable customized production and faster time to market. We don’t consider additive a replacement for traditional manufacturing like molding and machining. It is one more tool that engineers can consider for producing parts and assemblies.

Norfolk: We are familiar with companies that today 3D-print plastic components on demand to fill low-volume hardware orders for supply houses. Odds are that people are already being impacted by 3D printing without their knowledge. In regard to another manufacturing technology, we see a shift in the inflection point for economic choice; for example, 3D printing of plastic is unlikely to ever beat the cost advantage of injection molding. But the break-even point for building a mold is slowly shifting upward as 3D printing can fill larger and larger orders.

Brigden: In times of economic downturn, innovation is the first rung of the ladder out. In these uncertain times, where modern-day supply chains are being increasingly questioned, AM is poised to play a role in shaping what future supply chains are going to look like. Look at the response to ventilator shortages and the rapidity of prototype generation – it’s phenomenal. AM is being brought to bear in a creative and optimistic way. Will conventional manufacturing processes be affected? I doubt it.

AM is not the silver bullet for all scenarios. Whether used as a prototyping aid or a new technology enabler, metal AM is a complementary technology that will broaden our scope of engineering capability before it will ever narrow it.

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