What can we learn from 3D printing?

5 advantages of 3D printing

Through the deep integration of big data, artificial intelligence and other technologies, additive manufacturing or 3D printing is setting off a brand-new technological and industrial revolution. It will have a profound impact on human production patterns and lifestyles.
Additive manufacturing has many advantages, including:

  1. Shortening the production cycle;
  2. Reducing manufacturing costs;
  3. Improving the design to increase more end products
  4. The optimization tool is more ergonomic and improves performance;
  5. The customized modelling helps to realize the customization of the final product and improves production efficiency.

New growth points for future industrial development

Countries around the world have taken additive manufacturing as a new growth point for future industrial development. Report from McKinsey includes additive manufacturing as one of the 12 disruptive technologies that will determine the economy in 2025. Time magazine lists additive manufacturing as the top ten fastest-growing industries in the United States. The Economist magazine believes that additive manufacturing will ‘along with other digital production models to promote the realization of the third industrial revolution.’ And the technology will change the future production and life mode and realize socialized manufacturing. A new round of industrial revolution, industry 4.0, with cloud computing, big data, additive manufacturing is coming, and the manufacturing industry will become the key to the country’s economic competitiveness. Europe, the United States and China have adopted additive manufacturing as a national strategy to “re-industrialize,” “retake manufacturing,” and “reinvigorate the economy.”

Metal additive manufacturing is the most cutting-edge and most potential additive manufacturing technology and an important development direction of advanced manufacturing technology. Metal additive manufacturing technology uses high-energy beams (laser beams/electron beams/arcs, etc.) as the heat source to realize the layer-by-layer accumulation of metal components by melting powder or wire. According to the different energy sources and forming materials used, typical metal additive manufacturing mainly includes: Selective Laser Melting (SLM), Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS), Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBFF), Wire and arc additive manufacturing (WAAM).

Selective Laser Melting (SLM)Electron Beam Melting (EBM)Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS)Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBFF)Wire and arc additive manufacturing (WAAM)
Selective Laser MeltingElectron Beam MeltingLaser Engineered Net ShapingElectron Beam Freeform FabricationWire and arc additive manufacturing
Heat sourceSingle-mode laserElectron beamMulti-mode laserElectron beamElectric arc(TIG/MIG/CMT)
Spot diameter20-300μm200-500 μm0.5-3mm1-3mm1-3mm
Output power50-1000w>2kw>1kw>1kw>1kw
Input materialpowderpowderpowderwirewire
Atmosphereinert gasVacuum(10-4pa)inert gasVacuum(10-4pa)inert gas(Ar or N2)
Product sizeSmall -medianSmall -medianMedian-bigbighuge
Surface roughnessRa 6-10Ra 20-50Ra 20-50Ra 20-50>Ra 50
Material inputTi,Fe,Ni,Al alloysTi,Fe,Ni,Al alloysTi,Fe,Ni,Al alloysTi,Fe,Ni,Al alloys
Table 1:  Comparison of the technical principles and characteristics of metal additive manufacturing methods

For different application fields, the relationship between forming quality, efficiency and cost should be comprehensively evaluated and the best cost-effective 3D printing should be selected.

The relationship between additive manufacturing forming efficiency and quality.

3D printing applications

3D printing applications are becoming wider and wider, ranging from consumer products, cultural and creative artefact, architectural design to aerospace structures. In the future, various additive manufacturing technologies will be further developed rapidly, and more efficient and lower cost additive manufacturing processes may continue to be proposed. Various additive manufacturing technologies will compete on the same stage and continue to expand their application fields.

The influence of complex structure on the cost of additive manufacturing and traditional manufacturing parts.

Figure 2 shows the impact of component complexity on manufacturing costs. For traditional mechanical manufacturing (such as turning, milling, grinding, drilling), the manufacturing cost of parts increases exponentially with the increase in complexity and is related to the manufacturing batch. When it is less than 3000 pieces, the cost is very high. The complexity of the parts has little effect on the cost of additive manufacturing. The additive manufacturing process is hardly affected by the complexity of the parts, and its cost is mainly determined by the time required to manufacture the parts. Therefore, additive manufacturing has a significant competitive advantage for single-piece, small-batch production and parts with high geometric complexity. The manufacturing of traditional parts is limited by the complexity of the part itself, and often the design process of function priority is not fully realized in the design process. There are many redundancies in the structure and waste materials. Additive manufacturing can optimize the design through structural topology and reduce weight, improve its performance to achieve lightweight and high strength. Additive manufacturing can distribute different materials of different compositions and colors in the required positions as needed, and obtain the best theoretical design and function-first integrated design and manufacturing.

Aerospace and medical (dental, implants) are the markets with the clearest prospects for the industrialization of metal additive manufacturing, and the automotive, industrial machinery, and consumer electronics markets are highly flexible. From the current global metal 3D printing equipment installed capacity, the distribution of each major application market is relatively balanced. Among them, the aerospace market has the highest installed capacity, followed by medical, dental, industrial machinery, consumer electronics, and scientific research institutions. And the automotive field. It should be pointed out that the use of printing equipment in medical, dental and scientific research institutions is oriented to customized needs. Although the value is high and the certainty is strong, it cannot form mass production. There is a certain scale of demand in aerospace, industrial machinery, consumer electronics, automobiles and other fields. In particular, these sectors have a large output value and are still in the early stage of 3D printing application, and they will have high growth flexibility in the future. IDTechEx predicts that by 2028, the global scale of the metal 3D printing market is expected to reach 12 billion U.S. dollars. Among them, aerospace is expected to become the fastest-growing and largest-scale application field due to both demand certainty and large-scale production requirements.

The future of 3D printing

The development of additive manufacturing is no longer a purely technical issue, but an ecological issue. Of course, at the technical level, 3D printing is still innovating, deepening, extending, and integrating; and at the ecological level, additive manufacturing is constantly developing in the direction of systematization, platformization, and ecology. At the consumer level, 3D printing tends to be personalized and customized; at the industrial level, 3D printing emphasizes the low-cost mass application of metal additive manufacturing. The innovation and development of any technology have a growth trajectory. Because additive manufacturing has unique advantages in digitalization, lightweight, better performance, better design, more conducive to modelling and simulation testing, and shorter production cycle, its development potential is undoubtedly Is very huge.

About the authors

David de Brouwer

Founder / Managing Director Engibex

Jeff Zhang

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Electrical Mechanics Engineering

Expertise in numerical modelling & experimental data mining. Great enthusiasm in innovative product design & R&D.


Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, McKinsey Global Institute, 2013

The Top Ten Fastest-Growing Industries in America, Time, 2012

Giant 3D printers for making boats, bridges, buildings and rockets, The Economist , 2019