3D Printing Progress: New Directions for Developing Technology

The popularity of 3D printing is increasing as it becomes a viable method for prefabrication testing, prototyping, and even some production purposes. The simultaneous emergence of other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, into the commercial sphere is poised to transform research and development.
Business owners stand to benefit from staying apprised of developments in 3D printing methods, machine learning, and the commercial, consumer, and industrial applications of these technologies. This brief report covers the current status of these technologies, the potential for progress over the next ten years, and ways that businesses can benefit from implementing this technology.

The Status of 3D Printing Today

Additive manufacturing has developed over the course of decades, ever since a commonly cited patent for melt-spun monofilaments was filed in 1972. 3D printing technology has only recently become viable in the commercial and consumer markets. The wider application of 3D printing in an increasing number of industries, the improvement of printers, and advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have had co-evolutionary benefits.
Improvements occur as printing technology is put to the test creating items for a widening range of purposes. The refinement of articulation and precision printing capabilities has led to an enhanced ability to print fully-assembled interlocking parts and mechanical components. This has already begun to meaningfully impact the fields of industrial and medical research and development. On the commercial market, 3D printed parts have already debuted in the auto parts and retail hardware industries, which have a combined market share of 60 billion dollars per year. The technology is also transforming consumer industries such as animation, crafts, hobbies, gaming, and toys.
Some companies have led the way by investing in 3D printing and artificial intelligence technology for research and development purposes, but have not brought products created using these methods to market. Industries in which 3D printing is being tested but has not yet been introduced on a large scale include home building and improvement, which has a collective annual market share approaching 700 billion dollars. This technology is also poised to transform life sciences research and development, including the printing of living tissue.
3D printed apparel and consumer products remain in the early stages of development. Existing technology excels with edible materials such as sugars and starches, and advances are being made toward printing proteins. Consumer electronics and furniture also remain in preliminary stages of development, as the size, specificity, and quantities of these products called for on the market require continued innovations in printing with different types of materials and multiple extruders.

Directions for Future Progress

In the present day, 3D printing stands out for its usefulness for detecting defects early in the prefabrication and prototyping process. Over time, use of this technology will extend to more stages of development, production, and manufacturing. Some developments on the horizon pertain to printing methods, whereas others come from combining 3D printing with other nascent technology.
Electron Beam Melting is a more energy efficient 3D printing process that provides increased control over material porosity and results in higher-quality print jobs. At present, this printing method is primarily used to create medical implants. Over the next ten years, EBM may become more commonplace in other industries with stringent product specifications. Laminated Object Manufacturing is another emerging printing method that is much faster than standard 3D printing, but has not yet achieved the accuracy or versatility of other methods. LOM is already an affordable and fast way to generate prototypes.
Predictive maintenance is one area in which artificial intelligence and 3D printing are likely to overlap. Systems used to test 3D printed items can estimate the operational lifespan and potential causes of part failure. Beyond predicting when and how parts are likely to fail, machine learning can also lead to systems that automatically produce timely replacements. These systems may also help to fix potential flaws in advance of product release.
The increasing availability of affordable desktop 3D printers for the consumer and small business market is another promising development sector. This technology makes 3D printing possible for a broader sector of the population and can lead toward innovations across all tiers of this technology. 3D printer sales approached 3.1 billion dollars in 2016, and Deloitte projects that the 3D printing industry will reach 5.2 billion dollars by the year 2020.

Commercial Implementation Strategies

Businesses stand to benefit from 3D printing, with or without advanced methods or artificial intelligence. From prototyping and revision to manufacturing, this technology is already changing the ways in which research, development, and production take place. 3D printing also allows for increased customization with reduced overhead.
Although 3D printing remains somewhat expensive and inefficient in terms of printers, materials, and rates of production, businesses can already benefit from the ability to create and modify prototypes relatively inexpensively compared to conventional methods. This remains the most effective use for 3D printing in the present day. As printer costs decrease and speeds increase, this technology may become better suited to the manufacture of finished products.
Companies that stand to benefit from 3D printing should perform an assessment to determine what 3D printing can contribute and the most cost-effective ways to experiment with or implement this technology. The same approach is also viable for insights available through machine learning. Start by deciding whether to partner with a service that provides prototyping or invest in equipment and hiring or training staff. Experimentation does not necessitate a purchase of costly equipment, but businesses may find that an initial investment leads to a reduction of research and development costs down the road and removes restrictions from the prefabrication process.
Taking the initiative and taking preliminary measures toward implementing 3D printing can set a company up for success. Over the next decade, this printer technology will become more affordable and mainstream. There has never been a better time for a business to venture into this developing field. Printers already have the core capabilities and versatility necessary for a wide range of commercial, consumer, and industrial applications. Combined implementations of additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence are now on the rise.