2020 was a painful, unprecedented year that none of us will soon forget. But with the U.S. election behind us and the promise of effective vaccines ahead, 2021 is appearing significantly brighter. I’m also proud to say that the additive manufacturing (AM) industry truly rose to the challenges of COVID-19. During the pandemic, the industry proved it can step in to make quantities of supplies at scale to keep assembly lines moving. Early in the health crisis, when face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) were in short supply, we were able to quickly produce tens of thousands of 3D-printed protective facemask frames, helping protect police, firefighters, and other frontline workers.
This is the beginning of radical change. In the next seven years, the global AM market is set to grow from $12 billion in 2020 to reach around $78 billion by 2028. Billions will be saved through new economic and production models. Supply chains will be stronger and able to withstand the worst type of unforeseen events – think pandemic, think combat. Our environment will be safer – think less waste, more recycling. New markets will emerge – think mass customization of consumer goods and flying cars. The beauty of industrial 3D printing disruption is the ability to do things, make parts, and manufacture products not previously possible.
Five trends will push 3D printing to greater success in 2021.
1. AM will be deployed more broadly
The question has always been: how do you use this technology to cost-effectively create not just one or two items but hundreds or thousands? Manufacturing companies have finally cracked the code, and there will be no turning back.
Essentium recently completed the third installment in our annual AM industrial survey, conducted by Dimensional Research. We found that the number of companies now using AM for full-scale production runs of hundreds of thousands of parts doubled from 7% in 2019 to 14% in 2020. We expect that percentage to grow this year.
This shift proves that AM has evolved from the prototyping phase to the production phase. While 41% of companies that use 3D printing are now doing so for full-scale parts production, this number is set to increase to 49% in the near future.
2. Working smarter, not harder
The companies that perform the best in 2021 will embrace working smarter, not harder. In reality, companies will have to do both. But one example of how companies can work smarter is by shifting the way they acquire capital equipment. Specifically, instead of relying predominantly on a capital expenditure (capex) model for expensive machinery, I think it will be incumbent on companies to start leasing that equipment so they can invest in new capabilities with a lower overall risk profile.
We are still working our way through a COVID-19-induced recession, and for many companies, the capex process will remain a significant challenge throughout 2021. But if companies and their procurement organizations can embrace leasing equipment such as industrial 3D printers, they will ultimately win.
3. Additive will prevail in biomedical
AM has been gradually gaining traction and proving itself advantageous and reliable across a broad spectrum of applications. Innovators within the biomedical industry are increasingly experimenting with the technology, searching for optimal opportunities to capitalize on its potential and transform their businesses.
Some of the most advanced applications are in the orthotics and prosthetics (O&P) industry. Advances in 3D printing technology have made prosthetics lighter, faster, and more efficient, significantly improving amputees’ quality of life. Many clinics are benefiting from the advantage of being early adopters – they are experiencing better patient outcomes due to more consistent design and manufacturing processes and an increase in patient volume.
As a machine produces devices, clinicians can see many more patients and sustain a larger patient base reliably. In addition, these flagship clinicians are the first to create and test many new materials and designs that the O&P industry has not seen before. As materials improve and the technology evolves, 3D printing will lead the way, delivering innovative new parts and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
4. More 3D printing companies will go public
In 2020, Desktop Metal made headlines when it announced its plan to go public via a reverse merger that valued the company at about $2.5 billion and provided the 3D printer maker with more than $500 million, giving Desktop Metal the war chest it needs for expansion.
Other prominent 3D printing companies will likely follow suit. And that’s a good thing. A new crop of publicly traded companies in this space can help raise the AM industry profile as a whole and position 3D printing more prominently in the minds of industrial users looking to work smarter.
5. Additive will power the new supply chain
Many companies realize that producing parts themselves, without relying on global suppliers, puts them in a stronger position to get their products to market. Our survey found that 57% of manufacturers increased 3D printing of production parts to keep their supply chains flowing during the crisis. Investments like this don’t make sense to unwind. Additionally, 3D printing investment plans have changed at many companies, with 25% of manufacturers ramping up 3D printing to meet supply chain needs and 30% evaluating industrial-scale 3D printing to fill supply chain gaps.
Ultimately, AM is demonstrating its relevance to manufacturing. The manufacturing industry will save billions of dollars in production costs while building stronger businesses that can withstand even a once-in-a-century crisis.