3D Printing in 2020

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Manufacturing processes like injection moulding and CNC cutting are often large and expensive, and can only be profitable at a large scale. 3D printing and other additive manufacturing technologies seek to address these setbacks. The advantage of 3D printing over other manufacturing technologies is that 3D printing has fewer barriers to entry. It is more cost-effective to manufacture products at a smaller scale, making it easier to customize and prototype objects, as the underlying hardware and software are flexible enough to accommodate rapid changes. 3D printing is also capable of producing more complicated, detailed structures than other manufacturing methods, and is therefore increasingly used in more complicated environments like aerospace and medicine. 3D printing is able to produce less waste than other manufacturing methods in terms of raw materials, post-processing labour, and transportation. There are many different 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies; this wiki seeks to outline the most popular technologies, their benefits and drawbacks, the associated software, and the benefits that these technologies can provide to your business.

3D Printing Technologies

Fused Deposition Modelling

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), also referred to as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), is the 3D printing process by which a material is extruded through a nozzle onto a build surface. The material is extruded above its own glass transition temperature in a viscous state, fusing to the material below it, and cooling down to form a desired object. This 3D printing method closely mimics the process of icing a cupcake; the icing is extruded through a tube onto the cupcake and can stand up on its own once extruded.

Most FDM printers function by controlling the movements of 4 motors: 3 motors handle the 3-dimensional XYZ motion, while the fourth motor handles the extrusion of a material. A common FDM process involves the extrusion of polylactic acid (PLA), a spool of biodegradable thermoplastic. This plastic is solid at room temperature but becomes viscous above temperatures of 150ºC. PLA is often extruded at above 200ºC to ensure a smooth flow.

The tool head, which in this case is a plastic extruder, draws a path in the X-Y direction to form each layer of the object. The printer then moves the tool head up (or moves the entire build area downwards) and begins the next layer on top of the previous layer (much in the way lasagna is just layers of cheese and noodles stacked on top of each other).


Stereolithography (SLA)[1] printers or Digital Light Processing (DLP) printers are usually referred to as “resin printers”. Resin printers use a photochemical process to 3D print an object by suspending the object in a bath of liquid resin. An array of ultraviolet LEDs and an LCD screen work in tandem to flash an image onto the build surface, where each layer of the desired object is represented by a single image. After several seconds (typically anywhere from 2-8 seconds depending on the machine, though the very first layer cures for longer to ensure adhesion to the build surface), the UV light cures the resin and it solidifies. This process is repeated for each layer until the object is complete.

SLA 3D printing has the advantage of being able to produce very small and detailed objects, based on the specifications of the LCD screen inside the machine. However, the drawback of SLA printers is the difficulty in production and sourcing of large-format, high-detail LCD screens and UV arrays. This means that most SLA machines are smaller in size compared to other 3D printing technologies.

The benefit of this technology is it can print very quickly; each layer will take the same amount of time to cure, regardless of the horizontal X-Y size of the build surface and the number of objects being printed at once. This means that the print time can be measured as a linear function of an object’s height.

Selective Laser Sintering

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)[2] printers use a laser to fuse a powder together and form an object. SLS printers are similar in motion to FDM printers: the tool head draws a path in the X-Y direction, forming each layer of the model. Once the layer is complete, the entire build area is lowered to make way for the subsequent layer. However, instead of extruding plastic, an SLS printer will use a mirror to reflect a laser beam, focusing the laser onto the toolpath. Similarly also to SLA printers, in SLS machines the entire build area is submerged in its material, in this case a powder.

Nylon is the most common SLS material; but some metals are also manufacturable with this method, provided the laser is powerful enough to fuse the powdered metal together and the printer can maintain a high enough heat inside. The greatest advantage of SLS over FDM and SLA is that SLS printed objects do not require support structures. Both FDM and SLA prints will require support structures if the model has overhanging sections, as gravity will cause these sections to collapse. Because SLS machines submerge the build area and the model in a powder, the powder acts as a support structure, preventing any overhangs from collapsing. The elimination of support structures results in less material used and a smoother surface finish (as no post-processing is necessary to remove supports). SLS printers are faster than FDM printers, and can produce much more detailed objects, but the underlying hardware and software are more complicated making this technology significantly more expensive.

Continuous Liquid Interface Production

Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP)[3] is a more advanced SLA technology trademarked by Carbon3D. Unveiled in a 2015 TED Talk[4], CLIP boasts printing speeds up to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing. This is achieved through careful control of the printing environment. The underlying technology is very similar to SLA printing, as both SLA and CLIP use UV lights to cure a resin and raise the build area out of the resin bath. This is where the similarities end.

Instead of fully completing each layer as is done with SLA, CLIP progressively cures the resin as it is lifted out of the bath. CLIP carefully controls the Z-axis, allowing the resin to flow under the model into a “dead zone”, effectively allowing for continuous printing rather than layer-by-layer. Once a print is complete, it is not yet fully cured. The object is placed in an oven where a “secondary chemical reaction [...] causes the materials to adapt and strengthen, taking on exceptionally strong characteristics” (Carbon 3D, 2020) [5].

Optimizing 3D Printing with Software and Computer-Aided Design Technologies

3D printing itself is a fairly rudimentary activity because a machine will replicate an object based on what you tell it to do. In this sense, 3D printers are limited to a very small set of specific, repetitive tasks or movements as defined in your 3D print file. In order to expand the capabilities of a 3D printer, more attention needs to be focused on the machine’s software parameters and other upstream technologies that go into designing and producing a 3D model.

Slicing Software

Most 3D printing technologies (specifically FDM and SLA) operate by the layer-by-layer creation of an object. In order to convert a 3D model into its respective layers, you need a piece of software called a slicer.

A slicer uses your input parameters to convert a 3D model into layers for printing. Input parameters can include the number of top and bottom layers, the number of perimeters, infill density, support for overhangs, and more. These parameters will be used to determine the size, density, and quality of your print. The slicing software generates a toolpath for your machine. The slicer can accurately estimate the amount of material to be used, the cost of production, and the manufacturing time.

  • A 3D model in the slicing software
  • A sliced 3D model
  • A time and cost estimation in the slicer.

Non-Planar 3D Printing

FDM printers typically function by drawing a toolpath in the X-Y direction, forming one complete layer of an object, before the build area moves in the Z-direction. This can have several disadvantages, including visible layer lines, a rough top surface, and the final object may only resist force in the print direction.

Non-planar 3D printing[6] seeks to resolve some of these FDM drawbacks. Instead of layer-by-layer printing, non-planar printing moves in all 3 dimensions (X, Y, and Z) simultaneously to create smoother curves and less noticeable layer lines. This is especially advantageous when you consider the manufacturing of airplane wings. Layer lines would cause air disturbance and would result in inefficient or ineffective wings. However, with non-planar printing, the surfaces can be uniform and smooth, resulting in proper airflow. These objects will also more effectively resist outside forces acting on its body, as the print direction is non-uniform.

Printing in a non-planar fashion requires very little hardware changes, and requires some knowledge of the software. The machine can already handle the movement of all 3 axes in tandem, it just requires a more advanced code output than a typical slicer can manage. Non-planar print files can be generated by post-processing a gcode file using python scripts.

Simulation in Physics Engines

When manufacturing a component for functional use, you must consider the forces acting on the component when it is in use. If you design a shelf bracket, it needs to be strong enough to support the shelf and its contents. The typical prototyping process for functional parts will often require the design and creation of multiple iterations. These iterations are individually tested in their usage environment (each shelf bracket is stress-tested to its breaking point) in order to determine the success of the component.

Simulations are beneficial to the design process, as you can digitally visualize the stress points on your model before beginning the manufacturing process. This means less fabrication and less time spent testing components, resulting in faster prototyping and a lower failure rate. In this example, the simulation of the aerodynamics of a cow reveals that the cow’s head (the red section) is not aerodynamic. If you were modelling a cow, you would want to smooth out that surface prior to fabrication.

Generative Design

Generative Design (GD)[7] involves the use of a computer to automatically design a model based on the user’s input parameters and functional goals. This eliminates most of the prototyping and real-world testing required to produce a product; GD will perform simulations, tests, and iterations to mathematically optimize a component based on your requirements.

Computational Fluid Dynamics

We normally think that when a fan blows air, the air flows in a straight line away from the fan. This is not correct, as airflow is very turbulent and depends on a variety of factors including temperature, static pressure, crossflow, and more. Many of these concepts are not captured in traditional vents and ducts, resulting in inefficient and potentially obstructed airflow, as it is cheaper and easier to produce ducting of uniform sizes.

Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) is another method of simulation and generative design that enables additive manufacturing to show its strengths. CFD and 3D printing work in tandem to optimize airflow in vents. CFD is an automated design technology that simulates possible paths for air to flow given several of the parameters noted earlier, and within the constraints of your existing ducting and airflow sources. The direction of airflow is often non-uniform and organic in shape; these organic shapes are extremely difficult to produce by typical means of manufacturing, but are made more accessible with 3D printing. In the case of HP’s printers, using Siemens CFD software to simulate airflow resulted in a 22% improvement to airflow in the system[8]. Improving airflow in general seems relatively insignificant; but improving airflow will usually result in better cooling of a machine, improving machine performance and longevity; and can improve air quality for people working in industrial environments. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools are being forced to upgrade their air venting systems. CFD can introduce performance improvements and cost savings to schools, and potentially prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Machine Learning in Additive Manufacturing

In an earlier discussion on SLS printing, we saw how a laser beam is used to fuse powdered material together. In theory, if you re-run the same toolpath you will get the same result; this is fine for hobby-level and non-functional parts. However, in practice and in reality, the conditions from one run to another will never be identical. There will always be undetectable variations in temperature, material quality, laser path, and more. In applications where optimization and consistency are critical (automotive, medical, aerospace, etc), run-to-run consistency must be maintained.

Siemens are boasting that they are the first ones to introduce machine learning (ML) to additive manufacturing. Using ML, Siemens is able to predict and prevent variations in manufacturing parameters. This is not achievable through traditional simulation software, as the number of factors and potential variations results in a simulation time of 2000 years[9]. With ML, Siemens is able to reduce simulation time down to 30 minutes.

The Evolution of 3D Printing

The 1980s: Laying the Foundations of 3D Printing

The history of 3D printing began in 1981 when Dr. Hideo Kodama filed for the very first 3D printing patent application.[10] The patent described a photopolymer rapid prototyping system that uses UV light to harden the material. However, Dr. Kodama's patent was never commercialized. In 1983, an American engineer named Charles Hull invented the first stereolithography apparatus (SLA) machine. Three years later, Hull was granted the first patent in 3D printing for an SLA machine and would then co-found 3D Systems Corporation.[11] In 1988, 3D Systems began its growth with the sale of the first commercial rapid prototyping printer called the SLA-1.

Two other key technologies were patented during this period: Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).[12] In 1986, Carl Deckard filed a patent for an SLS process. The patent was then issued in 1989 to DTM, Inc., a company that was acquired by 3D Systems later on.[13] In 1989, Scott and Lisa Crump filed for a patent for the FDM process, which led to the co-founding of Stratasys Inc. by Scott Crump.[14]

The 1990s: Experimentations and Innovations

With the foundation of the technology already laid, earlier 3D printing companies began to experiment with the technology to capitalize on the creations of new machines.

In 1997, AeroMat produced the first 3D printed metal process using laser additive manufacturing (LAM) that employs high-powered lasers to fuse powdered titanium alloys.[15] In 1999, the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine pushed the boundaries of 3D printing with the first 3D printed organ, a lab-grown urinary bladder for transplant surgery. [16]

Still, the cost of 3D printing was the main barrier to entry for new entrants. As the adoption was limited to high-cost and low-volume product production and became highly useful for prototyping new products in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries.[17]

The 2000s: The 3D Printing Boom

As 3D printing companies continued to innovate, 2005 marked the year that the technology entered the mainstream era with Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s invention of the RepRap open-source concept. This consisted of creating a self-replicating 3D printer process that contributed to the rise in the creation of 3D printers.[18] By 2008, Dr. Bowyer’s Darwin became the first 3D printer designed under the RepRap concept that was commercially available. In the same year, Shapeways launched a 3D printing service that allows users to submit their own files for personal fabrication.[19]

2009 was a busy year that kickstarted with the expiration of the FDM patent previously held by Stratasys.[20] This led to the drop in the average FDM 3D printer price from $10,000 to under $1,000, making the technology more accessible. In the same year, Micro, a consumer 3D printer that supported PLA and ABS materials, launched the most funded 3D printer campaign ever on Kickstarter.[21] Moreover, Makerbot launched and brought 3D printing into the mainstream by introducing do-it-yourself kits for enthusiasts that wanted to build their own 3D printers. Makerbot also introduced the Thingiverse file library that allows users to submit and download 3D printable files, becoming the largest online 3D printing community and file repository.[22]

The 2010s: The Maker Revolution

As the cost of 3D printers continued to fall, the demand for the technology began to rise as the technology became more common in consumers’ homes and businesses.

In 2011, in the United Kingdom, the University of Southampton designed and 3D printed the first unmanned 3D printed aircraft.[23] The same year, in Canada, Kor Ecologic unveiled the Urbee, a prototype car with a 3D printed body, at the TEDxWinnipeg conference.[24] In 2012, B9Creator and Form 1 ran two successful Kickstarter campaigns to introduce alternate 3D printing processes into the entry-level market.[25] B9Creator released the new DLP technology while Form 1 released stereolithography.[26] Stratasys continues to grow as it acquired Makerbot for approximately US $604 million in 2013. [27]

In 2015, a Swedish company named Cellink released the first standardized commercial bio-ink to the market for printing tissue cartilage. This bio-ink is derived from a seaweed material called non-cellulose alginate. Later in the year, Cellink released the INKREDIBLE 3D printer for bioprinting services, creating an affordable market for bioprinting.[28]

Industry Analysis

The Global 3D Printing Market

Key Statistics

A 2018 A.T. Kearney report revealed that over the past 30 years, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of worldwide 3D printing products and services is 25.9%. In fact, the total 3D printing market has exponentially grown by approximately 5.7 times since 2012. By 2021, the global 3D printing market is forecasted to reach at least US$18 billion. With the widespread adoption of 3D printing in manufacturing processes, seven industry sectors will be impacted by this growth including energy, jewelry, healthcare, automotive, general, industrial, and most importantly aerospace. [29]

Today, across the globe, leaders are heavily investing in R&D to take the lead and capture the advantages of being a first-mover in the 3D printing market. To assess the degree to which a country’s governance, capabilities, and economic assets support the adoption of 3D printing, A.T. Kearney developed the 3D Printing Country Index.[30] The index asses each country based on the following six dimensions:

  • 3D printing (50%)
  • Demand (10%)
  • Trade (10%)
  • People (10%)
  • Governance (10%)
  • Technology (10%)

A.T. Kearney has divided the measured countries into 3 different categories[31]. The categories are as follows:

  • Leaders: spearheaded the research and development of 3D printing technology. These countries lead in 3D printing capabilities due to early adoption and the development of intellectual property on processes and 3D printing machines. Examples include the United States, Germany, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Japan.[32]
  • Challengers: possess the macroeconomic factors to lead in the global industry. However, due to the lack of reliable governance and skilled human resources, these countries are unable to capitalize on 3D printing on their own. Still, these countries can capitalize on 3D technology developed by the Leaders to close the gap as much as possible. Such countries include China, Italy, Malaysia, Taiwan, or Spain.[33]
  • Followers: are starting to enter the global market but only focus on niche areas. This is largely due to the need to overcome macroeconomic capability barriers before the widespread adoption in such countries. Examples of followers are Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, or even Poland.[34]

Market Trends

Low-Volume Production

Today, products can be customized to local markets, or even to individual consumers’ tastes. As a result, this has increased the rate of adoption within industries such as fashion, health care, and automotive. The ability to print on demand coupled with low-volume production has given businesses the opportunity to eliminate inventory as well as slash aftermarket lead-times. This is achieved by storing digital spare-parts catalogues which can then be 3D printed on-demand and without incurring high expenses.[35]

Life Cycle Sustainability

Environmental sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have element within an organization but rather an important part of every business’ strategy. With 3D printing, businesses can reduce the life-cycle environmental impact of products and incorporate more sustainable business practices and behaviours. In fact, 3D printing allows businesses to be material-efficient as making parts requires less usage of raw materials. This will result in less material waste and decreased energy consumption. Moreover, 3D printing enables on-demand manufacturing that eliminates product end-of-life waste by reducing the number of end-parts stocked in inventory and the reduced shipping distances.[36]

Supply Chain Realignment

With the increased need for companies to find highly responsive digital technologies to meet consumers’ demand and ultimately remain competitive. Moreover, companies are recognizing the need to integrate IT into their business strategies. Today, 3D printing has the potential to redefine global supply chains and embrace Industry 4.0. experience. Coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, big-data analytics, and even cloud computing, 3D printing plays an integral role in enabling companies to build a competitive advantage. In fact, 3D printing has allowed businesses to eliminate numerous stages along their supply chain in the manufacturing process. Furthermore, COVID-19 has pushed health care systems to reorganize their supply chains. 3D printing enables medical and dental organizations to manufacture medical devices and drugs closer to patients. The pandemic has also revealed fragilities in numerous companies’ supply chains. Consequently, 3D printing reduces businesses’ dependency on single-source suppliers. [37]

The North American 3D Printing Market

Key Statistics

The North American 3D Printing market’s development has been driven by the rapid technological advancement of fundamental components, falling R&D costs and new innovative applications for 3D-printing technology. Since 2014, the market revenue has been forecasted to rise at an annualized rate of 19.5% to $4.5 billion. On the other hand, the industry’s profit has been reduced to 3.1% of industry revenue. This is largely due to the surge of new market entrants and not the loss in popularity of 3D printing.[38]

As 3D printers continue to become mainstream, revenue is anticipated to grow aggressively as a result. Furthermore, more customers from a variety of industries are increasingly adopting 3D-printing technology in their manufacturing processes. A 2019 IBISWorld report forecasts that the North American industry revenue will increase at an annualized rate of 13.5% to $8.5 billion in the next four years.[39]

Key Trends

Despite 3D printing becoming more mainstream and products becoming more user-friendly, consumer demand is still not as lucrative as industrial demand. As more clients from a variety of industries and average consumers start to adopt 3D-printing technology, traditional 2D printer manufacturers will move faster into the 3D printing market.[40]

Currently, the level of customization is one of the most attractive features of 3D printing. With the COVID-19 pandemic, 3D printers are increasingly being used in the healthcare industry for medical device manufacturing. This allows medical and dental organizations to 3D print customized medical devices such as hearing aids, orthopedic implants and dental implants. [41]

Another key feature that has attracted more users is 3D printers’ ability to easily convert digital designs into physical 3D prototypes. Consequently, this key feature has appealed to large players in the aerospace industry. In fact, 3D printing has become significantly popular among aerospace manufacturers as these manufacturers are continuously looking for ways to reduce aircrafts’ weight to improve fuel efficiency.[42]

Key Players in the Industry

3D Systems Corporation

In 1989, 3D Systems’ founder Chuck Hull pioneered the 3D printing technology with the development and patenting of the stereolithography technology.[43] Today, 3D Systems engineers, manufactures and sells 3D printers, 3D printing materials, 3D scanners, and offers a 3D printing service for its international clientele. 3D Systems continued to grow its empire through the development of new technologies, including selective laser sintering (SLS), multi-jet printing (MJP), film-transfer imaging, colour jet printing (CJP), direct metal printing (DMP), and plastic jet printing (PJP). Currently, 3D Systems has three main business units including products, materials, and services. In addition, industries including automotive, aerospace and defense, architecture, dental and healthcare, consumer goods and manufacturing heavily rely on 3D Systems’ technologies and materials for prototyping and the production of end-use parts. [44]

Proto Labs Inc.

Proto Labs was founded in 1999 by Larry Lukis with the goal to provide an automated and rapid solution to develop plastic and metal parts utilized in the manufacturing process.[45] Today, Proto Labs provides the process of rapid manufacturing of low-volume custom parts and short-run production parts using 3D printers, CNC machines, injection moulding and sheet metals. Headquartered in Maple Plain, Minnesota, the company expanded to launch a 3D printing service that allowed industrial developers and engineers to quickly move from prototypes to the production process in a seamless manner. Proto Labs’ primary business services include injection moulding, sheet metal fabrication and 3D printing for clients in the medical devices, electronics, automotive, appliances, and consumer products industries.[46]

FARO Technologies Inc.

FARO was founded in 1981 by Simon Raab and Greg Fraser under the name of Res-Tech [47]. The two biomedical engineering students later renamed the company as FARO two years later. Today, FARO specializes in 3D measurement, imaging, and realization technology to enable 3D capture, measurement, and analysis for industrial clients. Currently, FARO mainly serves clients from manufacturing, construction, engineering, and public safety internationally. FARO also serves the aerospace, automotive, and power generation industries. In addition, FARO’s products include coordinate measuring machines, laser trackers and projectors, mappers, scanners, and software. [48]

Materialise NV

Materialise was founded in 1990 in Belgium by Wilfried Vancraen and is recognized today as an established independent company. Headquartered in Leuven, Belgium with over 2000 employees, Materialise provides services to the automotive, aerospace, energy, consumer electronics, architecture, fashion, jewellery, and art industries. The largest industries in the Materialise portfolio include medical and dental companies. [49] Materialise provides the platform to enable the development of 3D printing applications to clients from industries such as healthcare, automotive, aerospace, or even art and design. Today, Materialise has three primary business operations that are interdependent:

  • Materialise Manufacturing: focusing on services and application development for industrial clients
  • Materialise Software: providing 3D Printing-specific software
  • Materialise Medical: providing anatomical modelling and prototyping in dental and hearing aid products as well as eyewear [50]

The ExOne Co.

ExOne initially started in 1995 as a division of Extrude Hone under the name of “ProMetal”. The ProMetal business unit was created to commercially develop metal 3D printers.[51] Officially founded in 2005, ExOne now specializes in manufacturing 3D printing machines for its clientele across various industries, from aerospace to defense. ExOne produces 3D printed products to meet the specifications required by its industrial customers. The ExOne 3D printers use binder jetting technology to fuse powder particles of materials, such as metal or sand, into moulds, cores, or final end-use parts. [52]

Business Adoption

Advantages of 3D Printing

There are 8 key advantages of 3D printing.[53]

  1. Flexible Design: With the implementation of 3D printers in businesses, it enables businesses to print and produce more complex designs than traditional manufacturing processes. This is because 3D printers can produce a wider range of objects with fewer pieces of hardware, and at a higher level of detail.
  2. Fast Production: Depending on a part’s design and complexity, 3D printing can print and produce goods quickly, sometimes within minutes and hours, which is much faster than many traditional manufacturing processes. For smaller and less complex items, companies can consider the opportunity to use 3D printers for mass production.
  3. Rapid Prototyping: Faster printing speed allows for a faster prototyping process in the development of a new good. This is because each part of a good can be developed and tested faster allowing for more design modifications to be completed at a much more efficient rate.
  4. Print on Demand: Essentially means make-to-order, where a business has the ability to quickly produce a unit of a good when a consumer requests an order. The benefit is that businesses do not need to invest in a lot of inventory space since the goods will be made and delivered to the consumer quickly, which will drastically cut operation costs.
  5. Cost Effective: 3D printing saves time which lowers the cost that would be associated with using different machines for manufacturing. There is also a lower cost for materials because consumers can purchase material spools in bulk. Furthermore, 3D printers can be set up with no operators needed to be present the entire time. This lowers the cost of labour significantly because companies do not need to hire employees to manufacture parts. Consumers may even look to purchase budget friendly printers and have customizations added to them to reduce costs.
  6. Accessibility: 3D printers are more available due to more local service providers offering outsourcing services for manufacturing work. This often saves time because a business can outsource the build to these providers. This does not require expensive transportation costs compared to some traditional processes where parts are produced abroad for the cheaper production costs.
  7. Minimize Waste: The production process only requires the exact amount of material needed to print the part itself as compared to alternative methods which would typically be to cut out from a large piece of material. Furthermore, rather than cutting many pieces to assemble a good, a company can just print the good with all of its parts intact.
  8. Environmentally Friendly: 3D printing reduces the amount of material wastage used and reduces a company’s carbon footprint. This is due to the lack of heavy machinery and an improved fuel efficiency from the elimination of players in the supply chain.

Disadvantages of 3D Printing

There are 6 key disadvantages of 3D printing.[54]

  1. Limited Materials: There is a limited selection of raw materials that can be used in 3D printers. Materials must be able to be taken from a solid state and turned to a liquid state for printing. Unfortunately, not all materials can be temperature controlled enough, recycled, or safe to allow for 3D printing.
  2. Restricted Build Size: Most 3D printers that are available on the market have small print chambers which limit the size of goods that can be printed. To print large goods, such as houses, require special types of 3D printers that are heavy and expensive for an average consumer. However, large goods can be printed with a smaller printer but will need to be printed in separate parts and assembled after production. This will increase costs and time for larger parts because of more parts being printed and manual labour required to assemble the goods.
  3. Post Processing:3D printed parts require some cleaning up to remove excess material from the build and to smooth the surface to achieve the required finish. So, while 3D printing might be fast, post processing is still troublesome and may slow down production. Some main post processing methods used include waterjetting, sanding, a chemical soak and rinse, air or heat drying, assembly.
  4. Part Structure: Since 3D printing parts are produced layer-by-layer, they can delaminate under certain stresses and conditions. This problem is more significant when producing items using fused deposition modelling (FDM), while polyjet and multijet parts tend to be more brittle.
  5. Taking Manufacturing Jobs Away: 3D printing replaces human labour by curing out the need for manual production. Many blue-collar workers that rely on low skill jobs as an income will inevitably lose their jobs. Third world countries that produce goods for developed countries will also struggle to keep their economies running due to the lack of demand in their service.
  6. Copyright Issues: As 3D printing continues to become more accessible and developed, there is a greater possibility for people to create counterfeit goods. More consumers will be affected by this increase in counterfeit goods in the system.

Additive vs. Subtractive Manufacturing

As mentioned previously, ‘’additive manufacturing’’ is the core concept and purpose of 3D printers since parts are printed by adding materials layer by layer. Depending on the type of printer, parts are made of melted materials or fused powder. In the end, these would require some finishing touches before they are ready to use, including a good polish and finishing.[55]

‘’Subtractive Manufacturing’’ involves shaping by removing materials off of large raw materials through cutting, drilling, milling or grinding. This process often requires some post-processing as well to achieve the final good. [56]

Both processes are driven by Computer Numerical Controls (CNC). In most cases, a virtual model designed in CAD software acts as an input model for the fabrication tool to output. Coupled with the user input, the software simulation is then used to trigger the tool paths that aid the printing or cutting tools to make the necessary printing or removal movements.

Although parts have their own preferred method of manufacturing, sometimes the best way to produce a part involves a combination of additive and subtractive processes. For example, it’s difficult to 3D print small threaded holes. A more effective technique is to 3D print a part with holes (an additive process) and tap threads in the hole (a subtractive process) after the 3D print is completed. If a smooth finish is required on 3D printed parts, it’s often useful to polish them (a subtractive process) after the 3D print is completed. [57]

  • List of differences and comparisons between the two manufacturing processes.

3D Printing Industry Application

There are 5 industries that are seeing fast adoption of 3D printing. With this growing trend in the adoption and application of 3D printing, we will likely see this technology reach a mass adoption by 2027.


The Aerospace industry has seen continued growth of large corporations implementing the technology into their business. NASA and SpaceX, two of the most reputable space programs in the world, use the additive manufacturing process to save millions of dollars by printing rocket engine parts. Additionally, NASA has 3D printers out in their space station where they can print parts on board. Depending on what part they need, design and print data travel through space from Earth and allow astronauts to print on demand.[58]

Boeing prints titanium parts for their airplanes which also saves them millions of dollars and improves their airplanes because the printed parts weigh less than traditional parts. These are 3 innovative and globally recognized companies that are using 3D printing in their production process knowing that there is a huge amount of risk involved because of the lives that they are responsible for but they still took the chance to innovate and improve their processes.[59]


The Automotive industry has seen fast adoption of 3D printing in their production lines. Audi and BMW use 3D printing to make hard to produce, complex, and expensive parts. Audi's 3D printing department in the Volkswagen Group R8 facility, the Böllinger Höfe, utilizes the Ultimaker and MakerBot printers to print 3D printing auxiliary tools designed to help guide their automotive machinery.[60] BMW has been using 3D printing as a means of producing parts that other technologies cannot create. A good example of this is the i8 Roadster’s top cover. Making the mounting would have been impossible using a traditional casting process. On top of being able to have flexible designs, the 3D printed car part is more durable and it also weighs less than previous iterations.[61]

3D printing has enabled the companies' to perform cheaper car maintenance for their expensive vehicles because new parts can be quickly printed and replaced rather than them having to attempt to fix these parts. OVerall, the implementation of 3D printing has made both the car companies' production processes more efficient, cars more durable, and service costs lower.


3D printing has been making it easier for companies in the Manufacturing industry to follow and support the lean manufacturing process. Lean manufacturing focuses heavily on reducing waste to enhance efficiency. One way to reduce waste is to stop overproducing parts and products. Canadian company, Lean Machine, found that oftentimes a lot of their manufacturing projects require tools that cost a lot more than the actual revenue gained from the projects. They started to implement 3D printing so that they can print out these tools to cut costs. Now they can take on many projects without having to worry about not making money.

Additionally, engineers encountered the challenge of cutting cantilevered workpieces. The challenge was that they had to remove less material on the workpieces to achieve the company’s standards of cut quality. This meant that more material is wasted rather than reused for future parts during the post production. Engineers designed composite vises so that they could machine the end of the workpiece efficiently. This resulted in Lean Machine to be able to reduce waste while enhancing production efficiencies.[62]


Over the last couple of years, many healthcare practitioners utilize 3D printing in various ways. One way is that they create replicas of organs out of materials with similar organ textures so that practitioners can practice before an operation. Some companies have been innovating and experimenting with printing real organs to be used in operations and there have been many successful transplant cases over the years. Dentists on the other hand, have been printing out fake teeth, guards, and tools for surgery to cut down costs for themselves and most importantly for their patients as well.[63]

The Healthcare industry has continued to see new innovations for medical applications. In January 2020, researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK announced they had manufactured 3D-printed parts capable of killing common bacteria while not being toxic to human cells. After researching and testing, they came upon silver-based antibacterial compounds and integrated them into the printing material. Their tests came back with positive results stating that there will be no negative influence on processability or part strength. This will be able to save the lives of patients by preventing the spread of infections from artificial parts inserted into a patient during surgery.[64]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 3D printing has played a significant part in providing test swabs to hospitals and testing centers in areas that have a shortage of supply. Additionally, people have been able to print ear guards to prevent face masks from chaffing the ears.


As the world population continues to grow, there will be greater adoption of 3D printing in the Construction industry. Shanghai Winsun Corporation uses 3D printing to print houses in China. It costs roughly $5,000 to make compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that was required in the traditional methods. Not only does the company cut costs and can build more houses faster, but the costs are also lowered for the customers. As mentioned in previous discussions, the red 5-story building is the tallest 3D printed building and it took less than a week to build when it would have taken half a year through traditional construction methods.[65]

Standing 2 stories high, measuring 9.5 metres high with a floor area of 640 square metres, Apis Cor built the structure for the Dubai Municipality. The company claims it is the largest 3D-printed building ever built. [66] The material used is a specifically made gypsum-based material that ran through a locally sourced printer. This project was a huge step forward in the concrete construction industry because of how durable and weather-proof the printer was while also requiring less money and human labour.

  • 3D printed rocket engine and airplane parts from SpaceX, NASA, and Boeing.
  • 3D printed car parts from Audi and BMW.
  • 3D printed vice and machine parts from Lean Machine.
  • 3D printed organs, dentist tools, and fake teeth.

3D Printing’s Role on Reshaping Business Models in 2020

According to a November 2019 article from AMFG, a company that provides production automation software for industrial 3D printing, there are 5 ways how 3D printing is creating new business models. Overall, this is reducing the barriers to entry for many new companies.[67]

On-Demand Manufacturing

3D printing is reshaping the on-demand business model because companies can now produce a few dozen, or even hundreds of parts whenever they need to at a lower cost and higher efficiency. In a world of speed and convenience, a consumer can order spare parts from a manufacturer’s web page and within hours a nearby 3D printing service provider has downloaded those files and printed the parts and have it sent to them within days. Alternatively, consumers can also print parts on their own 3D printers, eliminating personal shipping costs, tariffs, and shipping delays.

Manufacturing as a Service

Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS) allows a customer to send an order for a part, and based on workload, materials, workforce availability, location and scale, the network of 3D printing providers will be able to route the request to a given facility if they have reached max capacity at their facility, to most efficiently fulfil the print request for their customers so that they do not feel frustrated with delays.

Supply Chain Consolidation

Supply Chain Consolidation, allows an assembly that would normally require many parts manufactured as separate components and then shipped to a central place to be put together to now be additively manufacture parts as a single unit at a single place. This reduces the number of parts needed to be made by multiple suppliers reducing supply chain complexity, transportation costs, and the risk of disruptions, such as losing a supplier.

Mass Customization

Unlike traditional production methods, which would typically require a large investment in tools and machinery, 3D printing requires a smaller capital investment and parts can just be made by uploading a customized digital design into a 3D printer. This allows for companies to provide mass customization as printers can produce any complex model, if the materials are available, at any given time to match the changes in a customer’s preference.

Direct to consumer business model

3D printing is reducing the barriers to enter a market. Startup companies can skip the hurdles of getting products to the market. They do not have to rely on a supplier's ability to produce for them, they also can skip many costs in between as they would likely need to run their operations at a lower cost.

Price of Different Printers

The barriers to entry are decreasing all the time. If a purchaser wants to start a new business or change your existing business model to adopt 3D printing, it is easier now than ever before. 3D printers are getting cheaper every year, which is making them more accessible for businesses. Below are 3 different printers at 3 drastically different price points depending on the needs and wants of the purchaser. The costs continue to increase from there depending on the application and the size. The great thing about 3D printers is that anyone can add hardware and software to improve it so that it can print as well as some of the top printers.

3 Different Printers at 3 Different Price Points
Low Medium High
Creality Ender 3 Prusa i3 mk3 Ultimaker
3D Printer off Amazon
3D Printer off Prusa Research
3D Printer off Canada Newark
$300 $750 $3,500

Ethical Concerns

The rising accessibility and domestication of 3D printers bring about a wide variety of ethical problems. Its production versatility accompanied with endless design resources online creates a threat to businesses and society.

Theft of Intellectual Property

The implementation of 3D printing in business productions could increase productivity, customization and efficiency; however, the application of such a production process creates a threat to business intellectual property. Intellectual property is the ownership of intangible creations developed through human intellect [68]. Legal measures such as copyrights, patents, and trademarks are often taken by businesses to protect their intellectual property. 3D printers can be purchased online for as little as $350, making it fairly easy for individuals to counterfeit products. Counterfeit consumer goods are product replicas produced without the original brand owner’s authorization, breaching copyrights, patents, and trademarks[69]. Consumers of counterfeit goods get brand names, at lower prices, but these products are typically of lower quality and at times unsafe.

The Global Counterfeit Market[70]

OECD, Mapping the Real Routes of Trade in Fake Goods: Highlights Brochure, 2017.

The global counterfeit market accounts for approximately 3 percent of international trade. That is over $509 billion USD in illegal transactions. An analysis conducted by Frontier Economics determined that from 2008 to 2013 the counterfeit market grew 18 percent per year. As technology advances and consumer demands heighten, prices of 3D printers will decrease, making it more readily available. The rising business adoption and increasing private ownership of 3D printers is projected to increase the counterfeit market growth rate. The largest producers of counterfeit goods are centered around South Asia and the Middle East.

Threat to Businesses

Majority of products currently on the market are manufactured through traditional methods of production. It is considerably difficult to reproduce most physical goods that are produced by businesses due to the required capital investment in machinery and restricted access to the production processes. The adoption of 3D printing in business manufacturing could increase efficiency, customization, and lower costs; however, the use of computer-aided design (CAD) files, a digital file format of an object, risks the security of intellectual property. The possession of a CAD file and a 3D printer is all that is necessary to reproduce a product. The adoption of 3D printing could lead to businesses becoming a target of counterfeiting.

Counterfeit trade could impact business sales, costs, brand value and the economy they reside in. Consumers may opt to purchase counterfeit goods because they have lower prices. Consumer access to inexpensive “alternatives” decreases sales volume and may even place pressure on genuine brands to decrease their prices. Sellers advertise counterfeit goods, manipulating search engine optimization, resulting in heightened digital marketing costs for legitimate businesses. Measures are often taken by businesses to prevent replicas of their products from entering the counterfeit market, but anti-counterfeiting programs are costly. When the market becomes concentrated with inauthentic products, businesses could experience decreased customer loyalty because it negatively impacts an organization’s perceived brand value. The United States is ranked number 3 in the Global Innovation Index, making them a prospected victim of intellectual property theft [71]. Counterfeit transactions cost U.S. businesses more than $200 billion USD annually, leading to the loss of over 750,000 jobs [72]

Threat to Government

Intellectual property can be legally protected through copyrights, patents, and trademarks; thus, the protection of these rights require government enforcement. The increased adoption of 3D printing in business manufacturing risks the increased production of counterfeit goods. Governments are required to invest in programs that prevent these products from entering the economy. The impacts of intellectual theft on the government are increased operational costs and lower tax revenues. A growth in the counterfeit market leads to increased demand for operational activities such as interdictions, seizures, investigations and prosecutions. With the introduction of 3D printing in this market, it will be more difficult to differentiate real from fake products requiring further inspection and prosecution times. In addition, the loss of sales experienced by businesses mean they will pay less in tax; so, not only do they have to invest more into enforcement, they also lose tax revenue.

The United States, being a target destination for the sale of counterfeit goods, loses over $24 billion USD per year in taxes as a result of counterfeit sales[73]. The largest volume of counterfeit production, however, is in Asia due to the low costs of production; thus, counterfeit products are generally shipped overseas[74]. This provides customs and border protection agencies an opportunity to stop counterfeit goods from entering the market. In 2018, over 30,000 counterfeit shipments were seized at the United States borders, holding a value of over $1.2 Billion USD[75]. 3D printing is a solution for counterfeiters to avoid such confiscations. With 3D printing, illegitimate goods could be produced more cost effectively within the country and it will be much more difficult to inhibit these goods from entering the market.

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection:MSRP Values ($M) of Small Parcels, Cargo, and Other Seizures
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection:Annual Number of Small Parcels, Cargo, and Other Seizures

Printing of Dangerous Firearms

3D printers raise an ethical concern due to their ability to print firearms. The problem that often comes to mind is societal safety, but in addition to the threats to society, 3D printed firearms are also extremely dangerous to the user themselves.

Threat to User

The current centralized production of firearms allows guns to be tested and certified to ensure they meet local standards. Firearm factories are also regularly inspected for quality control. This relies heavily on a centralized location for manufacturing. The private ownership of 3D printers, in combination with accessible firearm design files online, make the enforcement of product quality difficult. In addition, current 3D printing technology is not suitable for printing reliable firearms. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives test fired 3D printed guns, concluding that they are unsafe, and some may even explode after or during the first shot, exposing users to great risks [76].

Threat to Society

3D printers make possession of a weapon easier, as there are currently no regulations regarding the possession of 3D printers. Printed guns are untraceable and undetectable, posing a threat to authority and civilians. This method could be a quicker, more inexpensive way for gangs, or terrorists to obtain firearms. 3D printed guns are much cheaper than traditional weapons and the low price could further increase the already staggering numbers of firearm possessions. A study conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre found that higher accessibility to firearms increases the risks of homicide [77]. Firearm evidence of a crime could also be easily destroyed by melting the plastic down if the weapon used was 3D printed. While unlicensed guns are currently in circulation, it is much more difficult than purchasing a 3D printer, downloading a CAD file and printing a gun in your own home. Printing firearms could be executed in complete secrecy.

COVID-19: Medical Supply Shortage and 3D Printing Solutions

In the end of 2019, COVID-19 began to spread globally at a rapid pace. The virus impacted thousands of people daily, resulting in a worldwide shortage of medical supplies. Manufacturers could not meet the pressing demands, so 3D printers were mobilized to help alleviate the deficit as well as increase effectiveness. 3D printers were used to supply a variety of medical products such as, masks, test swabs, and ventilator valves. 3D scanners were used to collect exact facial measures to print customized masks to completely seal the face, protecting all air inflow paths. COVID-19 test swabs with micro-fine tips were printed using computer-aided design software for accuracy. The efficiency of printing these swabs increased testing capacity. 3D printers were also utilized to print disposable ventilator valves used to transfer oxygen to patients. Its disposable nature saved time for healthcare workers as they did not have to sterilize them for every patient[78].

The Future of 3D Printing

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed flaws in our manufacturing and supply chain processes. In cases where critical supplies were inaccessible, 3D printing allowed manufacturers to rapidly prototype and fabricate products, circumventing traditional channels. 3D printing enables us to escape the waste and costs associated with large-scale global manufacturing, creating products that perform exceptionally well in their intended environment. As 3D printing technology continues to advance, the prices will decrease making 3D printing more accessible to individual consumers and small businesses. Not only will its innovative production abilities attract business adoption, it will also gain more attention for commercial consumption. Because 3D printing excels at creating more complex structures with a wide variety of materials it is still not feasible for use in large-scale manufacturing, but serves better for rapid prototyping and mass customization. The current limit of the technology is the speed, and there is very little room to grow for some 3D printing technologies - FDM as an example - because of the limitations of material science. As we have seen with CLIP, there are other ways in which this technology is seeing an increase in printing speed; these are the types of innovations which we will likely see moving forward, as software is optimized to push the limits of the hardware and material. As 3D scanning and smart home devices become more intelligent and accurate, we could see a movement towards one-click printing and voice-command printing.


  1. Formlabs Guide to SLA
  2. Formlabs Guide to SLS
  3. Carbon3D CLIP Technology Breakdown
  4. Carbon3D CLIP Ted Talk
  5. Carbon3D CLIP Technology Breakdown
  6. Hackaday Non-Planar Printing Article
  7. Autodesk Explanation of Generative Design
  8. HP Printer Airflow Improvements Using Computational Fluid Dynamics
  9. Siemens Machine Learning in Toolpath Generation
  10. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  11. 3D Systems History
  12. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  13. History of 3D Printing
  14. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  15. Museum of Arts and Design's 3D Printing Timeline
  16. Museum of Arts and Design's 3D Printing Timeline
  17. 3D Insider History of 3D Printing
  18. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  19. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  20. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  21. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  22. Museum of Arts and Design's 3D Printing Timeline
  23. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  24. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  25. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  26. History of 3D Printing by ASME
  27. Stratasys Acquires Makerbot for $604 million
  28. Cellink Evolution
  29. 3D Printing: ensuring manufacturing leadership in the 21st century
  30. 3D printing: disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing sector
  31. 3D printing: disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing sector
  32. 3D printing: disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing sector
  33. 3D printing: disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing sector
  34. 3D printing: disrupting the $12 trillion manufacturing sector
  35. Stratasys Report
  36. Stratasys Report
  37. Stratasys Report
  38. IBISWorld Industry Report (2019) - Industry Performance
  39. IBISWorld Industry Report (2019) - Specialization
  40. IBISWorld Industry Report (2019) - Industry at a Glance
  41. IBISWorld Industry Report (2019) - Industry at a Glance
  42. IBISWorld Industry Report (2019) - Industry at a Glance
  43. 3D Systems Story
  44. 3D Systems About Us
  45. Protolabs Who We Are
  46. Protolabs
  47. FARO History
  48. About FARO
  49. Materialise
  50. Materialise Products and Service
  51. ExOne Story
  52. ExOne About Us
  53. TWI Global
  54. TWI Global
  55. 3DE Shop - Additive vs. Subtractive
  56. 3DE Shop - Additive vs. Subtractive
  57. All 3DP
  58. Observer - How 3D Printing in Space Will Help Put a Million People on Mars
  59. The Verge - 3D Printed Titanium Parts Boeing Dreamliner 787
  60. 3D Printing Industry - Audi Expands 3D Printed Production for Tooling
  61. Wevolver - How 5 Major Automobile Manufacturers Use 3D Printing
  62. Mark Forged - Canadian Manufacturer 3D Prints Composite Vises
  63. Treat Stock - Top 10 Industries Using 3D Printing
  64. NS MEdical Devices - Medical 3D Printing Innovations in 2020
  65. 3D Print - Shanghai-based WinSun 3D Prints 6-Story Apartment Building and an Incredible Home
  66. Dezeen - APIS Builds World's Largest 3D Printed Building
  67. AMFG - 5 Examples of How 3D Printing Is Creating New Business Models
  68. Intellectual Property Definition
  69. Counterfeit Goods Defintion
  70. Counterfeit Statistics USPTO
  71. Innovation Index
  72. Counterfeit Statistics USPTO
  73. Counterfeit Statistics USPTO
  74. Counterfeit Statistics USPTO
  75. Counterfeit Statistics USPTO
  76. 3D Printed Gun Explosion
  77. Harvard Injury Control Research Centre:Homicide Risk
  78. 3D Printed Medical Supplies


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