3D Printing Tech: Key Trends
Breakthroughs in manufacturing during successive Industrial revolutions have one thing in common: they always led to drastic improvements into many sectors and transformed the way we look at them. The 4th Industrial revolution is nothing but promising and full of excitement. One of the technologies leading this tectonic shift is Additive Manufacturing or more commonly known as 3D Printing.
Additive Manufacturing is the process of converting a 3D object from a CAD model or digital 3D Model. It essentially adds material in the desired shape, unlike traditional manufacturing methods, that remove material from a block to create the desired product (Subtractive Manufacturing). This technology has seen massive growth in the past five years, with global venture capital spending increasing from 2017 to 2021 (till July) by almost 7x. The following trends have resulted in its meteoric growth:
1. Supply Chain Consolidation & Decentralisation
As innovation progresses at breakneck speeds, product life cycles have become shorter to bring products faster to the market. This is where 3D printing plays a significant role with high speed and progressively reduced complexity.
This prominence of 3D printing has been fuelled even further by the COVID Pandemic. As the world reeled under immense pressure for medical equipment, many manufacturers armed with this tech rose to the occasion to build life-saving equipment.
As the global economy reopens, companies look for solutions to reduce supply chain complexity because of volatility and uncertainty. Decentralisation and consolidation would mean a need for simpler and cheaper solutions for manufacturing operations without the need for significant technical expertise or high labour input.
With environmental concerns becoming paramount as governments and corporations look to protect planet Earth, 3D printing is the way to go for more than one reason. Since the process doesn’t cut materials from a block of material and essentially adds it layer by layer (hence the name Additive Manufacturing), there is a significant reduction in material use and tool wear.
Apart from this most obvious reason, there are many others, like the need for reduced logistics as factories can be many and decentralised. Even the scale of these factories is smaller, which also produces less noise. Spare availability for old machines is no longer a problem, helping reuse old machines and eliminate the need for spares inventory. Design customizability has helped make it more efficient to design features that were unimaginable earlier.
3. Customizability and Personalisation:
Customers value the ability to customise products to their tastes, and brands compete to deliver a personalised experience. Doing this while maintaining costs has always been a challenge, and this is what 3D printing is ideal for, helping transition from Mass Manufacturing to Mass Customisation.
4. On-Demand Manufacturing
We have seen access to technical know-how being democratised by the likes of no-code/ low code tools in the IT domain. This trend is likely to continue in Manufacturing and result in different business models like Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS). This will potentially be a shot in the arm for D2C models that have recently been coming up.
5. Evolving Adoption of the Technology
Different sectors have looked up to 3D Printing to offer unimaginable solutions. Especially healthcare, which found answers to many difficulties faced when the pandemic overwhelmed global supply chains last year.
Many industries list it as a priority because it is possible to manufacture complex geometrical designs by 3D Printing, which aren’t possible by traditional machining processes.
My research into segmentation and types of ventures always led me to a more technical landscape. So, I took some inspiration from a categorisation proposed by AMFG and came up with the following categories that are more aligned with different business models existing in this space:
1. Full Stack Solutions
These companies are the most traditional ones in the market. These are typically for enterprise clients who have the ability to invest heavily in manufacturing solutions. Hardware solutions are the key solutions offered by such companies. Other standard services provided are Softwares and Materials for Manufacturing.
The most common kind of companies of this category is like Formlabs, which offers 3D Printing hardware, Software solutions, and materials. However, some other solutions are also offered, like post 3D printing processing solutions by DyeMansion.
2. Product Makers
As the name suggests, these ventures are harnessing the advantages of 3D Printing to develop innovative solutions to problems that weren’t possible earlier. For example, from making custom bones to printing edible meat from plant sources, many unimaginable use cases lie waiting to be discovered.
This segment is quite non-traditional and can offer unique investment opportunities, especially in deep tech ventures.
An example in this space is Biomodex which is revolutionising training and simulation for advanced medical procedures.
3. Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS)
While MaaS as a concept has existed for a long time, ventures in this segment are taking off in a more organised and scalable manner through SMEs. With a considerable reduction in complexity and investment in opening a workshop, MaaS startups can provide lower lead times at a reduced cost and high design flexibility. This has also helped democratise access to hassle-free Manufacturing at a reasonable price, which earlier was available to a select few.
With the improvement in digital technologies and the ability to mass-produce along with the reducing cost of ownership, this type of venture is likely to see a significant uptick.
Ventures in this domain like Hubs offer manufacturing solutions for businesses online with a click of a button. As in the case of Hubs, these ventures may also provide additional services like Material selection or Design assistance.
4. Software as a Service (SaaS)
Independent software solutions for 3D Printing are relatively nascent as the Additive manufacturing industry has recently caught the world’s attention. Future ventures are expected to bring forth more SaaS solutions to ease designing, optimise workflows and simulate complex designs.
Ventures like nTopology work towards simplifying the design process, whereas those like 3YourMind provide a software suite to drive end to end AM workflows.
Startups in this category make 3D printing prerequisites like Manufacturing and design more accessible and readily available.
Companies like Xometry connect users to suppliers of 3D printing services, whereas CGTrader offers CAD Designs that can be printed on a 3D printer.
While the existence of this category is debatable, it is nevertheless essential to discuss it separately. Although material solutions are readily available from many players in other categories, this space may gain prominence as complex materials come into the picture to solve challenging problems. However, it is expected to take some time for exciting ventures to crowd this space.
An example in this domain is Alloyed which offers software to simulate unique alloys for different applications.
A Word of Caution
While a lot has been said in the article about the successes of 3D Printing till now, I would like to end with a word of caution. It is natural for an upcoming technology to garner more attention than it deserves. The dream of 3D printers as a part of households by 2010 has crashed earlier due to technological limitations.
From then, the current advancements in digital technologies like AI have improved the process tremendously in the last decade. However, large scale adoption remains a challenge as traditional manufacturing methods are still more cost-efficient. The economic advantage might eventually be narrowed down with the help of progress in AI and ML, but till then, 3D Printing is likely to complement the existing manufacturing technology instead of replacing it.
5. Research on Crunchbase