Martec had an opportunity a few weeks past to visit the Rapid + TCT 2019 trade show here in Detroit. The annual additive manufacturing conference, now in its 29th year, showcases some of the cutting edge in manufacturing technology. Rather than the massive, steel-wrought behemoths of Detroit’s industrial automotive past, the technology on display was often small, sleek, and designed to produce incredibly intricate parts, some down to the cellular level of scale. As additive manufacturing continues to mature and diversify, the discussions, exhibits, and technologies on display have expanded into a bewildering array of functionality. Here are some of Martec’s top takeaways from the conference:

  1. Additive manufacturing end-markets are vastly different. As a manufacturing process, additive manufacturing naturally cuts across many different end-applications. As the technologies involved have become more precise and well-established, the range of possible uses has likewise diversified, to fields with vastly different needs, standards, and approaches to market. Most commonly discussed at the conference were applications in the automotive, aerospace, and medical spaces, but there is considerable potential among numerous additional, smaller markets. Adapting to the regulatory requirements, supply chains, and throughput demands in each of those industries will be a key challenge for additive manufacturing technologists in tailoring their products to customers in the future.
  2. As manufacturing equipment gets more precise, adjacent technologies need to keep the pace. Better scanning techniques, whether in terms of hardware, software, of process approach, are required to realize the level of precision offered by today’s contemporary printers. This detail requirement can reach the level of highly cellular mapping technology, necessary to effectively catalogue not only the composition by also orientation of all cellular structures for “bioprinting” and “organ on a chip” applications. Outside of the biological, intensely precise scanning methods are necessary to effectively move from design to print.
  3. It’s not only about getting smaller; it’s about getting bigger as well. “Methods to scale up” was a common discussion topic at Rapid + TCT, highlighting a growing need as innovators push the boundaries of additive manufacturing application. Additive manufacturing for prototyping is well established in the manufacturing world but utilizing additive processes for commercial manufacturing requires a substantially different process design. Adapting additive manufacturing to the demands of throughput and uptime in commercial manufacturing remains a key challenge for the industry moving forward.
  4. “Making the case” for commercial deployment was a related, common, topic. The successes of additive manufacturing in prototyping have driven strong growth in the industry, but also “typecast” the technology. Additive manufacturing is perceived to be too expensive and time consuming for many large-scale commercial applications, at most recognized for its potential in tooling other machinery for production. Further penetration into key end markets will depend on advocates being able to make a cost-effective business case for use when and where innovative applications can be found in the commercial manufacturing chain.
  5. There is a tug of war between standardization and customization. Many large-scale commercial applications require high throughput validated to meet consistent performance standards. Conversely, many cutting edge bio applications, such as implants, require intense customization (sometimes not only in form, but in cellular structure). As additive manufacturing continues to improve, the technology will continue to specialize based on the needs of the end market. While additive manufacturing technology at present could be considered a “unified field”, fragmentation based on production need is likely to occur in the future.

Exhibits and experts in the field were optimistic about the growth trajectory of additive manufacturing in both the short and long term. Martec concurs with this assessment. Addressing critical needs for precision and adaptability across a wide array of end markets, additive manufacturing seems well positioned to grow along any number of lines. While challenges remain in increasing adoption among key markets, the potential of additive manufacturing to address innovative needs among technological fields is vast.

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