IDC identifies 3D printing as an innovation accelerator and a key enabler of digital transformation. One of the processes that has been and is being digitally transformed is prototyping. IDC’s research indicates that the vast majority of installations of 3D printers are for use as prototyping systems. Over the decades that 3D printing has been in existence, 3D printing has made prototyping much faster and less expensive across a range of industries. Even prototypes that need to be highly accurate can 3D printed in a matter of minutes or hours instead of the days and weeks that it used to take using alternative processes.
Still, as useful as 3D printers are for prototyping, manufacturers that use 3D printers reported numerous limitations or frustrations with 3D printers. The past 2-3 years mark a turning point for 3D printers as 3D printing equipment manufacturers have done a lot of work to overcome these frustrations. The most frequently cited frustration with 3D printing is what people perceive as high operating/materials costs. There are a lot of reasons for this, and in fact IDC sees this as a frequent complaint across all areas of the printing business that we cover. Bearing in mind that the materials can be critical enablers of the technology, such as photosensitive polymers and highly refined metal powders, it is true that many 3D printing systems require relatively expensive materials. This is changing somewhat, as some 3D printer manufacturers have started developing ways to use the same metal powders that are used in metal injection molding, reducing the need for those very expensive 3D printing powders. On the polymer side companies are using software to calculate smarter placement of supports which means fewer supports are required, lowering production costs. On the materials side we see efforts to reclaim/reuse unused powders which further reduces materials costs.
The second most often cited frustration with 3D printers is slow build speeds. IDC believes that the use of inkjet print head technology is going to represent a huge improvement in 3D printing production speeds. This is because instead of a single point of extrusion, melting, or sintering, inkjet-based systems will leverage the thousands of nozzles across the print head to jet curing materials to create highly accurate shapes. Binder-jetting systems have been used in 3D printing for years, but some of the biggest and best manufacturers and systems integrators with many years of experience in 3D printing are working on this, which IDC believe will enable much greater production speeds. Also the use of these highly accurate systems means less post processing will be required to remove artifacts from 3D builds, which further accelerates production speed.
Manufacturers also report a frustration in that the high-level of need for pre- and post-processing of 3D printed parts is high. One of the ways manufacturers are overcoming this problem is by using software tools to automatically analyze builds before they are printed.