The 2020 vision for 3D printing and digital manufacturing

George Brasher, HP’s UK & Ireland MD says the next year, and decade, will be an exciting time for additive manufacturing. 

2020 is set to be the year when the potential of 3D printing is realised across more industries. We’ve seen in the previous decade how 3D tech has turned traditional production models and workflows on their head, offering on-demand, bespoke manufacturing –  and presenting us with a modern model of the artisan age. This is only going to develop further as we begin this new decade.

So what are the key trends to watch out for, and where will we see the 3D industry focus its attention in 2020?

Automation will thrive on the factory floor

Automated assembly is going to arrive, with industries seamlessly integrating multi-part assemblies – including combinations of 3D printed metal and plastic parts. Factors such as processing temperatures mean that currently there is no ‘super printer’ that can do all things intrinsically, like print metal and plastic parts alike. However, improvements in automation mean we will see more simultaneous production.

Take the automotive industry as a possible example. Manufacturers will be capable of adding (i.e. printing) metal elements to plastic parts, build parts that are wear-resistant, add surface treatments and even build electric conductors or motors into plastic parts. Whilst the industry isn’t ready to bring this technology to market just yet, it’s an example of how automated assembly will shape 3D printing in the 2020s.

Sustainable production will be accelerated

3D printing and digital manufacturing is driving a world with less waste, less inventory and lower CO2 emissions. Given that nearly one-third of the latter stems from manufacturing, this could have a profound impact on the planet.

Engineers and designers alike will rethink design throughout the product lifecycle to reduce waste. New materials and complex geometries can produce lighter parts, delivering knock-on benefits – such as fuel efficiencies for the automotive industries.

3D printing has already turned production on its head, with technologies helping companies move from design and prototypes to product in under a week. Supply chain disruptions will increasingly become a thing of the past, as production of parts can be done flexibly and on location. As more manufacturers choose to transmit digital files for production locally – rather than shipping goods – you will see significant decreases in shipping, which in turn will reduce costs, waste, and emissions.

Data payloads for 3D printed parts

Using advanced 3D printing, organisations will be able to code digital information into the surface texture itself giving manufacturers a bigger data payload than a traditional serial number.

Through this application, organisations can tag a part overtly or covertly, for either people or machines to read –  such as via shape and orientation of bumps. This will tie 3D printing technologies to the future of parts and product tracking, a sector in itself.

Consumer health & electric vehicles will drive 3D growth

Applications in footwear, eyewear and orthodontics are proving lucrative for the 3D industry. The customisation options offered by 3D printing technologies adds value to these industries – whether it be custom shoes, braces or sunglasses that are personalised to the user. SmileDirectClub – which launched in the UK this year – is already digitally transforming the $12bn orthodontics industry. This growth in mass customisation will only continue as more companies exploit the benefits on offer.

The 2020s will be defined by automotive manufacturers seriously moving into the electric vehicle market. The fast prototyping and production capabilities of 3D allows manufacturers to produce car parts at a pace previously impossible to create. This should help drive down costs which, if passed on to the customer, will help remove one of the major barriers to mass e-vehicle uptake.

Demand for students who ‘think in 3D’

3D printing’s biggest impact on manufacturing job skills lies on the design side. You have a world of designers who have been trained in and grown up with existing technologies like injection moulding. Because of this, people unintentionally bias their design toward legacy processes and away from technologies like 3D printing.

Universities and training programs will build a new set of thought processes to liberate designers from old thinking and allow them to tap into 3D printing. As educators adopt new software design tools and promote additive manufacturing education programmes, students will be better equipped to take advantage of the millions of jobs that the 3D printing industry will create in the next decade. In the UK, we’ve seen real progress on this already, with the likes of CREATE Education launching 3D printing school hubs in recent months.

Ultimately, there are few other technologies with this much potential to fundamentally change every facet of how the world designs and manufactures​. The next year, and the decade as a whole, is set to be an exciting one for 3D print.

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