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3D printing, snapshot of a sector

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One of the big novelties of the past few years is 3D printing. Everybody’s talking about it, and in effect it offers some very interesting elements and a wide range of possible applications. At Print4All we’ll be able to discover its benefits, needs, materials and technologies.

3D printing is one of the hottest topics to emerge in recent years, something that’s on everyone's lips. Yet the question arises of what the actual impact of 3D printing will be, independently of the vox populi and the excitement that the issue stirs up. Is it really about to completely change the face of consumer goods manufacturing? Is the time nearly upon us when almost everything around us is printed in 3D? Or is this technology destined to remain restricted to a few niche sectors and to prototyping? A brand new study - carried out in October 2017 by the research agency Dimensional Research on behalf of Jabil, a supplier of solutions and services for the electronics and technology markets - gives a practical portrait of the sector through interviews with over 300 decision makers and users at companies in the manufacturing sector.

Applications and materials
The first important fact to emerge is that additive manufacturing technology already has a significant presence in manufacturing companies, above all larger ones. Over 70%, however, use it for the prototyping stage and only a third use it in the manufacture of finished parts. Perhaps unsurprisingly R&D departments are the main protagonists in the adoption of additive manufacturing, although it should be underlined that production departments are also involved (50% of respondents).

Another hot topic, here as in the rest of the printing world, is that of materials. While it’s true that plastic continues to reign supreme (81%), other materials are also growing in importance: metals (34%), ceramics (32%) and composites (8%). The predominance of plastic is clearly also connected with the fact that additive manufacturing is mainly used for prototyping, particularly in fields like the automotive (81%) or electronics (71%) sectors. Different materials, however, are more frequently used in the medical sector, where 41% of 3D printing output constitutes finished products.

Benefits and challenges
The advantages and problematic aspects encountered by companies vary by sector: a company working in the aerospace industry achieves greater benefits from innovations in product design and performance and, as a result, the manufacture of high quality parts is one of its main challenges; an automotive company, on the other hand, may be more interested in the cost savings offered by 3D printing and, therefore, may regard all costs external to the actual production process as a significant problem. It is nonetheless possible to make some generalisations. Some of the notable benefits include speed in bringing new ideas to market and innovation in design and performance (52%), speed of production (50%) and the customisation possibilities offered (48%). On the other side of the coin are the everyday challenges encountered: lack of experience and the impossibility of using all the potential of 3D technology immediately (43%); the initial investment costs (39%); the cost of consumables (34%); and the quality of the products produced (33%). It’s important to underline that nearly all of the respondents are convinced that these problems can be overcome within the next 3-5 years. The initiatives needed to succeed in this include retraining existing staff and/or recruiting qualified personnel (57%), new investment by the company (52%), a change of mentality within the company including the necessary time to adapt 48%), and technological innovations (47%).

Change is happening
Based on this information we can state that manufacturing industry will not be engulfed by 3D printing within the next few months. However, nearly all of the respondents agree that a paradigm shift is taking place and that their way of thinking and working is changing (36%) or will change soon (55%). Only 7% believe that there will be no rise in their use of 3D printing, with the remaining 93% split between those who say that it will increase (36%), that it will double (38%) or even that it will increase fivefold (19%). Let’s round off with a curious but important aspect:  only very few companies want to lead the way. Only 12% are inspired by a pioneering spirit, while many more feel that they’ll be ready to implement certain moves rapidly once they’ve seen that they work (67%). Another 18%, on the other hand, are even more extreme: only when 3D printing has become their industry's standard technology will they actually adopt it. To sum up, we can state that 3D printing is penetrating the manufacturing sector with dynamics that will change it profoundly, but that these changes will not necessarily be immediate. Widespread interest certainly exists but this is accompanied by a generally cautious attitude, and it will be a number of years before the factors currently inhibiting its more pervasive use in manufacturing are definitively resolved.

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