Technologies deemed critical to U.S. national security are often just as important to America’s economic standing. Either view works for the additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, industry.
Additive manufacturing is on the Biden administration’s list of critical and emerging technologies. A more recent initiative, Additive Manufacturing (AM) Forward, promotes the innovation and adoption of 3D printing to solve a host of problems ranging from supply chain disruption and offshore production to America’s technological competitiveness.
“3D printing technology is incredible,” President Joe Biden said on a recent 3D-manufacturing-plant tour. “It can reduce part lead times by as much as 90 percent, slash material costs by 90 percent, and cut energy use in half. That all lowers the cost of making goods here in America.”
AM Forward encourages large America manufacturers to purchase 3D printers and materials from small- to mid-size U.S.-based suppliers to reduce dependence on overseas factories. GE Aviation, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Siemens Energy have announced support of the pact.
3D in the supply chain
The technology also has broad implications for the high-tech supply chain. Watertown, MA-based Markforged has developed a platform of software, materials and printers for high-precision 3D industrial manufacturing. Its “Digital Forge” helps develop and digitally store product designs, incorporates metals, plastics and continuous fiber into its materials, and enables rapid product prototyping and production.
“Our niche is in tooling and fixtures in low volumes that require rigid and strong materials and accurate and reliable production,” said Charles Lu, product marketing manager. Most of Markforged’s printers fit on a desktop.
Designing and producing components in-house protects a manufacturer’s IP, Lu pointed out, versus sharing such data with an overseas factory. All data stored in the Digital Forge system is heavily encrypted. If a defect is spotted, its origin is easily traced back to the source, he added.
The economic advantages of 3D printing are considerable. Product designs are stored and easily reconfigured if multiple product SKUs are required. Products can be printed on-demand, which eliminates inventory holding costs or volume-order requirements. The cost of labor and machine-time are reduced, said Lu, as is product-turnaround time.
Even basic components, such as manufacturing tooling, are currently subject to lead time delays due to widespread logistics disruptions. Electronics manufacturers are frequently waiting for a single component to complete a design’s prototyping or production run. Modification – whether it’s packaging, the component itself or a tool on a manufacturing line – can reduce the wait.
“Lead times for the products you are sourcing could be up to 60 weeks,” said Lu. “I think, from the perspective of someone sourcing those parts, having the ability to make slight changes or modifications to a device that is holding up assembly is highly valuable. Many companies have to adapt to parts that are most available.”
The global 3D printing market was valued at $13.84 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 20.8 percent from 2022 to 2030, according to Grand View Research. Globally, 2.2 million units of 3D printers were shipped in 2021 and the shipments are expected to reach 21.5 million units by 2030.
Growing demand for prototyping applications from various industry verticals, particularly healthcare, automotive, and aerospace and defense are expected to fuel the growth of the market.
A common use for Markforged’s system is tooling used in volume manufacturing. Customer Fischer Connectors, a supplier of rugged connectors and cable assemblies, can print a set of prototype mold tools in just 24 to 48 hours for roughly $150. For low-volume production runs, the mold tool is used as the production mold tool. For high-volume programs, where the cost of a conventional steel mold can be substantial, the 3D printed mold plays a crucial role in developing dozens of proof-of-concept (POC)-ready prototypes. Fischer can make and demonstrate a POC within 48 hours to one week.
Currently, printed electronics are fairly simple. Electrically functional electronic or optical inks are deposited on a substrate, creating active or passive devices, such as thin film transistors, capacitors, coils and resistors. Some researchers expect printed electronics to facilitate widespread, very low-cost, low-performance electronics for applications such as flexible displays, smart labels, decorative and animated posters and clothing.
3D materials have advanced significantly from the early days of industrial printing and are most often provided by printer makers. Such models control the quality of materials and the device that’s printed, said Lu. Like any materials-dependent business, 3D printing has faced sourcing challenges in the past two years as the global supply chain reels from Covid and numerous logistics disruptions. Markforged implements redundant materials sourcing, said Lu.
For the first quarter of 2022, the company’s revenue grew by 8.6 percent from the prior year to $21.9 million.
Recent industry developments
Since additive manufacturing became a national priority, according to media site 3D Printing Industry, there have been a number of advances:
- Binder jet 3D printer manufacturer ExOne was awarded a $1.6 million contract to develop a portable 3D printing factory for the Department of Defense (DoD) which could provide spare part production capabilities for troops in the field.
- Additive manufacturing data specialist Senvol received a round of funding from the DoD to develop its Senvol ML machine learning software and has previously received a contract to design and qualify 3D printed components for use on missiles.
- Industrial 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys developed its new data security platform, ProtectAM, specifically designed to enhance the cybersecurity of 3D printing for U.S. government and mission-critical defense applications. The firm was also awarded a $20 million contract to supply the U.S. Navy with up to 25 F900 3D printers over the next five years in a bid to shorten the military’s supply chains and provide it with enhanced aircraft repair capabilities.
- Particle-free metal ink producer Electroninks received investment from In-Q-Tel, the strategic investment arm of the U.S. Intelligence community founded by the CIA, which will help the firm deliver its particle-free conductive inks at scale to its government and commercial partners.
Additive manufacturing developers point to the transformation of factory floors where design and IP, materials and 3D printers coexist onsite. The footprint of many 3D printers and lightweight materials address space concerns, and on-demand production frees up warehouse space.
The devices can be networked for large-scale projects, added Lu. Michigan’s Project DIAMOnD allows factories to rapidly scale up activity. For example, hundreds of manufacturers with 3D printers can print personal protective equipment (PPE) when called upon to do so.