Where does 3D printing stand after the hype?

After the initial euphoria, the technology is now being profitably utilized in various industries.

The Swiss innovation agency Innosuisse has significantly advanced 3D printing in Switzerland from 2017 to 2024 through the National Thematic Networks and the Innovation Booster Program, specifically with the Innovation Booster Additive Manufacturing (IBAM).

3D printing has existed since the 1980s. It started with photo-curable plastics, which were solidified layer by layer using UV rays. The complex equipment and processes involved meant that this technology was primarily used in laboratories. When the first filament printers became market-ready, this affordable technology became publicly known. This process forms plastics into 3D objects by melting and layering them in a straightforward manner. With advanced 3D printing software and a user-friendly process, theoretically, everyone could soon print complex objects “out of thin air,” leading to soaring expectations.

However, the shift from subtractive manufacturing, such as machining, to additive manufacturing requires a fundamental change in thinking about how products, tools, and aids can be created. When 3D printing is applied with traditional knowledge and experience in design and production, not only is the potential of this technology wasted, but the disadvantages—such as more expensive raw materials and longer production times—also prevail.

Where is additive manufacturing applicable?
The enormous potential of additive manufacturing is evident in applications such as:
– Personalized products
– Lightweight applications
– Objects with complex geometries
– Consolidation of various parts into assemblies
– Functional integration (e.g., sensors, multi-material printing)
– Creation of tools, e.g., with integrated cooling channels
– Recycling of processed materials (e.g., as filament, granulate, or powder)
– Spare parts provision
– Repair of worn parts
– Production close to the customer for simplified supply chains, thus lower logistics costs, shorter delivery times, and fewer customs costs

In which industries does additive manufacturing promise advantages?
In medicine and medical technology, patient-specific solutions are primarily needed. Whether for surgical planning models, implants, prostheses and associated drill guides, orthoses, hearing aids, shoes, glasses, skin replacements, or even medications, these always need to be customized for the patient. Many of these applications are already being additively manufactured on the market, sometimes in larger series.

In aerospace and aviation technology, durable and lightweight components are used. For satellites, support structures for solar panels are needed, and for airplanes, weight reductions lead to fuel savings.

In energy generation and transportation vehicles, parts wear out. For example, turbine blades or wheels can be made operational again through additive welding. Motor parts (e.g., magnetic stators) can also be optimized in geometry, significantly improving the efficiency of these units.

In recycling, various materials can be processed for reuse. Organic materials like fruit pits, coffee grounds, fibers, or wood waste can be used as pellets or filament to manufacture devices, packaging materials, and other consumer goods.

The construction industry also benefits from the advantages of additive manufacturing. With optimized concrete mixes, walls can be built layer by layer without formwork, providing cavities for insulation and building services. Additionally, 3D-printed formwork—often in plastic—can enable artistic construction shapes.

In electronics, increasingly delicate heat sinks, highly complex RF antennas, motors, and multilayer circuit boards are being additively manufactured. Additionally, conductors and sensors are directly printed on housings or flexible, skin-friendly bandages.

Finally, 3D printing is also being used in the food sector. Meals for children and seniors can be prepared in terms of shape, color, consistency, and ingredient mix as needed. Moreover, chocolates can be printed artfully, for example, for cake decorations.

Reasons for delayed market penetration
Why hasn’t additive manufacturing achieved greater success? The lack of skilled personnel, ignorance of which 3D printing processes would be optimal, incomplete standardization, data and copyright protection, and especially the often existing reluctance to embrace new things and thus contribute to success—all these factors delay the breakthrough of additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing not only enables unique product features but can also generate cost advantages. However, this is only possible after the problems within the company have been analyzed. The suggestions derived from this analysis must be aligned with the strengths of 3D printing to create successful solutions.

Status and development of 3D printing in Switzerland
The Leading House AM Network, which was promoted as a National Thematic Network (NTN) and as Innovation Booster Additive Manufacturing (IBAM) by Innosuisse, was able to support and advance the penetration of this technology in Switzerland from 2017 to 2024.

In the early years, the AM Network was able to familiarize interested parties with the technology and educate them about the possibilities of 3D printing. Larger conferences and specialist events enabled the formation of a community of interest. Due to the hardly noticeable customer benefits for the end consumer, the prevailing hype waned in the following years. At the same time, other AM manufacturing technologies for various applications became established in the professional sector (B2B). This made it more difficult for Swiss SMEs to enter the field. Investments of often over a quarter of a million CHF could thus not be justified.

Various 3D printing service providers with years of experience enabled companies to realize their projects but faced difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, SMEs’ reluctance towards this new technology has not yet been completely overcome.

The goal of making 3D printing one of the many standard manufacturing processes has not yet been achieved. The complexity and versatility, as well as the rapidly changing technologies, continue to pose hurdles but also promote partnerships with specialized service providers.

The realignment towards additive manufacturing processes is a process that requires time. However, in the near future, this innovative technology will increasingly enter the Swiss manufacturing landscape and shape it sustainably.

Hendrik Holsboer is Managing Director at IBAM and a networking expert in the field of additive manufacturing (AM) 

(Article first published in the topsoft Fachmagazin 24-2)

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