Innovative 3D Manufacturing Technologies to Watch: The Rise of Polymer 3D Printing

While COVID-19 brought chaos last year to manufacturing and supply chains, it also fueled innovation and new perspectives on how goods are produced and distributed globally. As wait times for overseas products skyrocketed, brand companies and original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) are looking at ways to become more agile and resilient to market disruptions.  By reducing labor steps to produce goods and increasing automation, 3D printing is enabling manufacturing in traditionally high-cost regions. 

With 3D printing, manufacturers have greater flexibility on what goods they produce and where they are located while shortening the time to market. These advantages are opening up new operating models and driving greater business transformation. Here are our top predictions for the 3D printing industry that will accelerate adoption and expand the opportunities for polymer additive manufacturing as a production manufacturing solution.  

Introducing translucent rose eyewear

Higher Performance – Increase Use of High Viscosity Materials

3D printing is often viewed as mainly for prototyping because the performance of most printable materials does not meet production requirements. Low, mid-range, and even some high-end 3D printers can only print low viscosity polymer materials – limiting the performance of the parts they can produce.           

Recent advancements in high viscosity 3D printed elastic polymers are producing products that perform as well, or even better, than counterparts made with polyurethane or other high-performance foam. With continued research into new polymers and improvements in 3D printing machines, there will be an increasing number of high viscosity printable materials introduced this year that will support a wider range of production goods. 

Higher Throughput  – Faster Z Speed with Larger Area and Volume 

Many 3D printers are limited by the size of their print area, how fast they can print each layer, and total volume they can print.  3D printing technologies traditionally sacrifice speed, surface finish, and printed part performance to gain larger print area and volume (SLA, FDM, SLS), or sacrifice print area to gain speed, improved surface finish, and printed part performance (DLP). Many printers on the market today can quickly print a two-dimensional area, however, they struggle to rapidly print layers while maintaining strength between interfacing layers and high-quality surface finish.

In 2021, leading photoinitiated printing technologies – specifically DLP – will print higher viscosity materials at faster Z-speeds and larger build volumes. It will enable 3D printing of larger parts with high-performance materials and isotropic properties. The greater speed and volume along with higher material and product performance will drive adoption of DLP 3D printing solutions for larger production parts. Aerospace, industrial, consumer, and medical industries will benefit the most from these advancements.

Reducing Post-Processing with Direct Printing of Color and Smooth Surface Finish

3D printing products typically require extensive post processing to get the desired color and finish. Additive manufacturing with colors is currently possible, but there are tradeoffs which limit the highest quality color printers to prototyping and niche applications. If there is no color requirement, the printed part will still need post-processing such as sanding or buffing to get a smooth finish. For example, selective laser sintering (SLS) produces a rough part with limited color options and requires extensive post-processing to achieve a smooth surface finish and high-quality vibrant colors. Fused deposition modeling (FDM) can produce multiple colors in a single print but granularity is restricted to the filament level as well as requiring sanding to get the right finish. 

Investments in photopolymerization-based 3D printing systems will enable color and translucent options along with speed and accuracy. Photoinitiated 3D printing systems will extend its technological lead over other 3D printing technologies by directly printing parts with required color and surface finish without additional post processing.  This streamlined production workflow achieves cost and production time advantages over SLS and SLA by eliminating post processing steps like surface smoothing and color dying.

Easier to Support Customization and Personalization

It has been challenging for 3D printing technologies to support customization and personalization outside of dental and medical industries. The high cost from lack of streamlined software and extensive labor needed to deliver custom products makes it not feasible for many businesses.   

A combination of new software, faster 3D printing machines, and reduction in post-processing will support customization and scaling of these solutions in new industry applications. For example, in consumer products such as footwear and eyewear, attributes including color, specific graphics, and even unique texture elements can be personalized and localized to the country, team, etc. In medical, construction of custom insoles, footbeds, and casts will shift from a highly labor-intensive process to an automated and repeatable 3D printing process. 3D printing will enable customization and personalization at scale as businesses look to provide higher levels of value to attract new customers and develop greater customer loyalty.

Introduction of Production Scale On-Demand and Cloud-Connected 3D Printers 

To take a product from prototype to production using traditional manufacturing methods is long and can require many design changes. Products may need to be redesigned or broken down into sub-parts for ease of manufacturing, or to address limitations with tooling and assembly processes to achieve yield, performance, and cost objectives. In addition, the gap between prototyping and production scale continues to exist even with current 3D printing technologies and services.

The introduction of next-generation 3D printers that are connected to smart factories – via the cloud – for on demand scalability will make the transition from development or prototyping to production easier. During design and prototyping, companies can print and refine designs locally using production materials and printing processes. Once the designs are finalized, the cloud connected 3D printer can access a smart factory for instant manufacturing capacity and scalability.  Cloud-connected 3D printers  will accelerate adoption of 3D printing for volume production. It will allow companies  to go to market faster with lower initial capital requirements while supporting a broader range of products that can be  frequently and easily updated.

Localizing Manufacturing – 3D Printing Smart Factories are Closer to the Customer

Having manufacturing near customers is difficult with high labor and overhead costs and gaps in local skills and supply chains. Local production requires a local supply chain. Until there is a sustainable ecosystem, many companies need to import parts and build in risks into the business model. 

3D printing can reduce some of these risks and dependencies by producing products with fewer parts and less assembly. Also, to get a manufacturing site up and running with 3D printing requires a much lower capital expense than traditional methods such as injection molding. And, with the same machines, a wider range of products can be created. As more of a product can be created at a site or when more of the supply chain is local, it will be easier to setup manufacturing sites. We will see brand companies leverage 3D printing to set up local manufacturing sites as well as service bureaus adopting the technology to support production for local clients. 

More Application and Industry Specific 3D Printing Solutions

Most 3D printing solutions are designed for general use. As a result, 3D printing solutions, such as the software, can be complicated and hard to use. To accommodate a wide range of applications, the software will have many features and the overall 3D printing solution may not address specific needs or challenges.

Leading 3D printing companies are acquiring deep knowledge in key areas to develop industry- or application- specific solutions. Many 3D printing solutions also do not consider the impact of post-processing. With industry- or application- specific solutions, the entire end-to-end process is evaluated to eliminate or reduce labor and post processing steps. There will be purpose-built machines, software, and materials to optimize and simplify solutions. 

Software that is targeted to solve specific problems are simpler to use, and with greater focus, we will see greater material advancement for certain industries and applications. For example, the dental industry is seeing 3D printing software that can create dental models based on scans, and dental material that are 3D printed into products with little post-processing. In the footwear industry, 3D printing software can specify stiffness in any part of the midsole as well as create the model for each footwear size based on a single design. 

Greater Automation

Traditional manufacturing and current 3D printing solutions require a significant number of manual steps from setup, production, and post processing. Production requirements have driven manufacturing to low-cost labor countries like China and Vietnam.  With innovative technologies that minimize labor and enable greater automation, manufacturing has the potential to come back to countries with higher labor costs. 

There will be more automation integrated into 3D printing solutions including post-production processes. With intelligent software workflows and robotic automation in production processes, automation in 3D printing will make significant progress in 2021 and see advancements in industrial, consumer goods, dental, and medical industries. 

Incorporating AI and Machine Learning into 3D Printing – Intelligent and Dynamic Workflows

Continually improving processes is a key tenet in manufacturing. However, implementing changes based on learnings is very slow, as it requires rigorous change management and validation processes. As more manufacturing becomes digitalized, companies can implement continuous improvement practices allowing them to quickly make changes on the production line and manage risk. 

With cloud-connected 3D printers, companies can access 3D printing software that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) engines and machine learning. Software can help optimize 3D designs or enable scaling of production volume across machines in a smart factory or multiple smart factories. As applications for additive manufacturing expands, 3D printing software can learn and support businesses in new ways. 

Leverage Innovative 3D Printing Technologies for Manufacturing With LuxCreo 

LuxCreo provides innovative 3D printing manufacturing technologies and on-demand 3D printing services through its cloud-connected smart factory. With application-specific solutions, LuxCreo is transforming manufacturing and production processes across many industries

To learn more about leveraging the advantages of 3D printing, visit our contact page or call (650) 336-0888.

Michael Strohecker

Passionate problem solver with over 15 years in 3D printing and hardware technology. Engineering and material science background including developing and designing applications using advanced materials such as carbon fiber for the aerospace and commercial space industry. Experiences include industrial application 3D printing, building power management and generation, and RF transmission applications. B.S. Mechanical Engineering, M.S. Engineering and Materials Science, and Wharton MBA, Finance.