3D printing: a bright future in prospect?

by Micaella Feldstein, Tech & Data analyst, Natixis CIB Research

Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, refers to technologies that grow three dimensional objects one superfine layer at a time, from instructions contained in a digital file, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing that involves cutting away from a solid block of material, notably using a milling machine to cut or hollow out the block.

These technologies, which appeared in the 1980s, are made up of different families of techniques that differ in the materials used and the way in which the different layers of material are deposited and fused together. The most appropriate technique needs to be chosen based on the objects and specific needs.

In this publication, Micaella Feldstein, Tech & Data analyst, looks at the many use cases that are multiplying in different sectors, presents the advantages and limitations of 3D printing, the sector players and concludes by examining avenues for the evolution of this technology.

Originally used to manufacture prototypes very quickly, use cases for additive manufacturing are multiplying in many industries, thanks to technological innovations, the addition of more compatible materials, lower printer prices and improved printing quality. Additive manufacturing can be used to produce spare parts, tooling and finished products in small series as well as customised products. In healthcare, new processes such as bioprinting offer the prospect of revolutionary advances in patient treatment, with the production of human tissues and organs. In the building industry, these technologies open the way to building houses in record time.

More and more industries are resorting to additive manufacturing, as these technologies offer advantages that are sometimes simply not available with conventional technologies, in particular the creation of complex and customised shapes, great flexibility and reactivity since not needing specific moulds and tooling, and the optimisation of parts structures with the creation of ultra-light and high-performance parts.

However, challenges remain, such as a still very high unit cost, heavy investments for some machines, materials that are often more expensive than in traditional manufacturing, a need to widen the range of compatible materials, certifications that must be obtained, and so on. Finally, progress is needed in terms of the energy consumption of printers, the use of less toxic materials, and the creation of recycling infrastructures to improve the environmental impact of additive manufacturing.

The 3D printing sector is booming as use cases multiply: big names in aeronautics, space, automotive and consumer goods, such as Airbus, Thales, Porsche and Adidas, have already integrated it into their factories. Some groups are starting up their own additive manufacturing subsidiaries, multiplying acquisitions and partnerships to achieve critical size.

Finally, many start-ups and more developed companies are innovating and challenging 3D printing pioneers such as Stratasys and 3D Systems. However, the number of players investing in the market seems excessive in relation to the size of the market, opening the way to numerous mergers and acquisitions in the future.

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