Growing AM industry shows its true mettle in COVID-19 pandemic

When supply chains were severely disrupted in the early days of the pandemic, AM providers stepped in, demonstrating the responsiveness and value of the technology.

Over the past decade, additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has continued to grow and solidify its place within private industry, academia, and government. The AM industry experienced strong double-digit growth from 2010 through 2019. Average growth was 27.4 per cent per year over this period, based on extensive research conducted for the Wohlers Report. Adoption of AM for series production and tooling applications has contributed to this growth. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a challenging year for many in product development and manufacturing. Even so, Wohlers Associates estimates AM industry growth worldwide was in the range of 7 to 9 per cent for the year. Industry growth is expected to rebound to pre-COVID levels by 2022.

Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, global supply chains collapsed, but AM provided a rapid response capability. For example, organisations used 3D printing to help produce face shields and masks, nasal swabs, and replacement parts for ventilators. This brought attention to the technology in ways the AM industry had not previously seen. This quick and agile response improved conditions for healthcare providers and may have saved lives.

Production-volume metal AM parts being produced for the Rolls-Royce Ghost

The disruption caused by the pandemic has adversely impacted many AM service providers and producers of machines, materials, and software. The industry is expected to rebound as vaccines allow for safer travel and improved support for product development and manufacturing. Pent-up demand for AM products and services could help vulnerable companies remain in business.

From concept to production
Even in a pandemic, companies continued to use industrial 3D printers for rigorous prototyping and manufacturing. Using the same process and material for both activities can have a profound impact on the way products are developed and brought to market. Over the past 25+ years, 3D printing has developed into an attractive process for iterative design. It has replaced expensive and time-consuming methods of making prototypes at many companies. However, AM often involves the use of machines and materials that are different than those used for series production. Using the same machines and materials for both product development and manufacturing creates benefits and a new way of thinking.

Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) involves a range of techniques used to maximise the value of AM for production applications. It can make the difference when building a business case around the use of AM technology. Companies most successful with AM for production understand the value of DfAM. They recognise the need to design a product by consolidating parts and reducing material and weight using topology optimisation and lattice structures. Reducing the use of support material with DfAM can reduce the time and cost of building and post-processing AM parts. However, DfAM is not well understood at most companies.

GE Renewable Energy, Cobod and LafargeHolcim have partnered to build this prototype wind turbine tower via AM. Because it can be manufactured onsite, the tower can be taller than wind turbines manufactured using conventional methods and transported to the site

Surveys in connection with the Wohlers Report, an AM industry study published for 26 years, show that pre- and post-processing of AM parts can represent more than 40 per cent of their total cost. By applying DfAM and methods of post-process automation, these costs can decline significantly.

The cost of industrial machines for AM continues to be a challenge for even the largest corporations. Prices for AM machines that produce metal parts range from about $100 000 to $5 million, with an average selling price of $467 635, according to our research for Wohlers Report 2020. This is slowing widespread adoption. One solution is to significantly increase the speed of the machines.

Material prices are also a factor when considering AM for relatively high-volume production. Material for AM can cost 10 to 100 times more than a similar material for conventional manufacturing. As more companies scale AM into production, overall production volume will increase, and pricing is likely to decline. However, this may take years. For many applications, material costs do not deter from using AM for prototyping and low-volume production runs.

New materials for 3D printing are continually being commercialised, but the number of them still pale in comparison to those available for conventional manufacturing. For each AM system, only a handful of materials are typically available. This can make it more challenging to adopt AM for specific production applications.

GE Renewable Energy, Cobod and LafargeHolcim have partnered to build this prototype wind turbine tower via AM. Because it can be manufactured onsite, the tower can be taller than wind turbines manufactured using conventional methods and transported to the site

3D printing is not a push-button process. For AM to grow in the aerospace, automotive, medical, and other sectors, process repeatability is critical across machines and operators. For broad adoption to occur, this quality challenge must be overcome so that organisations can produce the same part on machines around the world.

Over the past 12 months, the world has been challenged by COVID-19. Countless organisations with AM capacity have helped fill supply chain gaps, which likely resulted in saving lives. The pandemic slowed business at companies that develop, support, and use AM products and services and it has resulted in some closures. Even so, others have done well, while helping to advance the development and acceptance of AM, especially for production. With so many product development programmes put on hold, pent-up demand for AM may help make up for losses.

This article, by Noah Mostow and Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, includes extracts from a longer article in Manufacturing News and includes highlights from the Wohlers Report 2021, produced annually by Wohlers Associates. For information, visit