The world-changing promise of additive manufacturing (AM) has been held back by scalability challenges, but the latest 3D-printing platform removes that barrier, enabling a compelling alternative to traditional machining that can bring far reaching economic, innovation, and environmental advantages.
In the biomedical industry, AM can be a game changer. For example, orthotics and prosthetics (O&P) is an inherently custom industry where devices are handmade for each patient. While practitioners take great pride in the prosthetic sockets they make, traditional processes can take days or weeks for patients to get outfitted with a custom prosthesis.
AM enables practitioners to rapidly develop cost-effective, fully customized prosthetics. It expedites the prosthetic design and production process while still allowing practitioners to make each device unique. Today, a 20-step process can be reduced to three or four steps, saving time, labor, and money. Clinicians can increase efficiency up to 400% with AM – dramatically increasing the number of patients they treat in a year.
The next generation of AM innovation is poised for rapid adoption as companies strive to respond faster to customer needs. It’s only a matter of time before the world of manufacturing and industry products are transformed for the better. But where are companies in the AM adoption process and what impact it is having on industries?
Growth in AM at scale
Recent research commissioned by Essentium exploring the attitudes of AM stakeholders shows large-scale production with additive technologies as a reality, giving companies ways to become more competitive globally.
For three decades, 3D printing has been broadly used to create prototypes. Today, more companies are pushing the boundaries beyond simple prototyping and implementing 3D printing across the entire manufacturing process – creating manufacturing aids, tooling, limited-run production parts, and full-scale production parts. Research indicates an increase in non-prototyping areas of 3D printing, with a significant spike for full-scale production parts – from 21% in 2018 to 40% in 2019.
Research also reveals that two-thirds of companies have more than doubled industrial-scale AM in their manufacturing, and 47% are using the technology for runs of thousands of printed parts, a jump of 17% compared to 2018.
The biomedical field will attract the most interest based on benefits AM offers for mass customization and improving customer response times. Survey results show the majority of respondents (61%) are adopting the technology to reduce lead times, 59% believe they will benefit from mass customization, 59% are looking to increase speed-to-part/device production, and 51% want to achieve high part/device performance.
While AM stakeholders overwhelmingly agree on the benefits and impact of industrial 3D printing, they also have a common view on the challenges it must overcome to deliver on its promise. The high cost of 3D printing materials was cited by 51% as a key challenge hindering adoption, while 38% called out expensive 3D printing hardware.
The majority of 3D printer vendors adopt a closed system, locking customers into vendors’ hardware, processes, and materials. While vendors argue this ensures consistency and reliability, it forces the customer to buy materials only from their 3D printer vendor. However, Essentium’s research shows this strategy isn’t working for manufacturers. While 85% of manufacturers reported that industrial-scale AM has potential to increase revenue for their business; 22% said vendor lock-in limits flexibility. To be competitive, large production manufacturers are demanding open materials for differentiation, cost, and scale. Nearly all (99%) of executives surveyed believe an open ecosystem is important to advance 3D printing at scale.
In an open ecosystem, 3D printing platforms can use materials from various vendors to give companies greater innovation control, more choice in materials, and economical industrial-scale production.
For the biomedical industry, this will easedesign and power creativity. For example, patients today want access to more functional prosthetics – from dynamic legs with shock absorption and carbon-fiber blades (or feet) to bionic arms with nimble fingers. An open ecosystem can support designing parts that can interact with the human body and more accurately mimic human anatomy. Already we’re seeing medical applications such as anatomical replicas that serve as critical surgical learning tools, implants, and hearing aids.
As materials improve and the technology evolves in an open market, AM will lead the way, delivering innovative new devices and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the biomedical sphere.
About the author: Blake Teipel, Ph.D., is CEO and co-founder of Essentium, and can be reached at email@example.com.