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.