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More engineers are using 3D printing more frequently and for higher-volume orders, as it continues to evolve into a truly industrial manufacturing technology.

Clare Scott

June 28, 2023

3 Min Read
3D printed prosthetic leg
Exo prosthetic legImage courtesy of Hubs/William Root

Additive manufacturing is growing fast, and it’s likely to continue in an upward trajectory. That’s a key takeaway from the latest “3D Printing Trend Report” from online manufacturing platform Hubs. The company has been publishing these reports for several years, with this year’s edition based on a survey of 1,035 participants as well as media and market analyst firms.

The manufacturing sector is increasing its use of additive manufacturing, with more engineers using the technology more frequently and for higher-volume orders, according to the report. This demonstrates that 3D printing is continuing to evolve into a truly industrial manufacturing technology.

Plastic vs. metal 3D printing

Polymer 3D printing continues to show strong growth, with the plastic 3D printing market generating more than twice the revenue of metal 3D printing. Of those surveyed, 56% said their preferred 3D printing method for part manufacture is fused deposition modeling (FDM), followed far behind by stereolithography (SLA) at 20%.

The main applications for which 3D printing is being used are prototyping, tooling, low-volume production, mass customization, and serial production. Both metal and plastic 3D printing are involved in these applications. Tooling is an example of an application in which metal 3D printing can be used to make plastic parts by printing the tooling for injection molding.

Lightweighting a key draw for aerospace

Aerospace, automotive, and medical are the primary industries in which 3D printing is being used. Aerospace was an early adopter of the technology — 3D printing’s ability to create lightweight parts has been a major draw, as lighter parts mean better fuel efficiency. Larger assemblies can also be consolidated into fewer parts.

Aerospace maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) providers are also embracing 3D printing. As the report points out, in 2022 GE Aviation’s Loyang facility in Singapore became the first MRO site to receive approval to use metal additive manufacturing to repair commercial jet engine parts. Reportedly, this cut repair times in half.

In the automotive industry, adoption of 3D printing has evolved significantly in the last 30 years, with applications including rapid prototyping, tooling, customization, spare parts manufacturing, and series production. Serial mass production is an emerging application in the automotive industry, with automation and digitalized workflows contributing to its growth. Hubs gives the example of the IDAM project, which built fully automated additive manufacturing production lines capable of producing 50,000 parts per year.

Patient-specific implants

In the medical sector, 3D printing is being used to produce patient-specific implants, prosthetics, surgical guides and instruments, and anatomical models. The dental industry is also increasing its use of 3D printing, with vat photopolymerization (VPP) technology accounting for 60% of dental 3D printing. Dental and orthodontic labs use the technology to produce custom crowns, bridges, dentures, implants, and surgical guides. Many clear aligner manufacturers use 3D printing to rapidly create custom molds for the aligners.

The report also discusses AI-assisted 3D printing, sustainability, and 4D printing, which involves 3D printed parts that can change their shapes or properties when exposed to external elements like heat, light, moisture, electric current, or pressure.

End-use parts a growing trend

Hubs closes out the report by assessing where 3D printing is headed in the future — in short, end-use parts. While only 20.72% of survey respondents said that they use 3D printing for the production of end-use parts currently, Hubs predicts that these applications will steadily increase as the technology evolves. Moreover, a trend of large-volume production is likely to continue. The number of businesses producing 10 or more parts during their production runs has already increased sharply, from 49% in 2021 to 76.24% in 2022.

The Hubs report is a close examination of how 3D printing is growing and affecting multiple industries. The news is good for the technology as it leaps forward, and all evidence suggests that it will continue to do so. The full report can be downloaded from the Hubs site.

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