When additive manufacturing (AM) technologies started in the 1980s, not many could have realised their benefits and potential. However, a few decades later, they became very promising manufacturing methods.
This is because it permits not only increased production, but also easy accessibility, cost-effectiveness, flexible designs and customisation, and reduced material wastage.
AM is the built of added features or parts in layers, directly from digital data and without the need for dedicated tooling or its associated investment costs. This technology has been recognised by entrepreneurs such as Rich Karlgraad (Forbes) as a transformative technology .
A recent report by Smartech Analysis, a leading provider of market research and industry analysis in the 3D printing/AM sector, showed that the global AM market grew to over $10b in 2019. Different AM segments are also expected to grow over the next few years, namely hardware, materials, services, and software (Figure 2) .
At this point you might be asking yourself: with so many benefits, why don’t we have massive manufacturing of items such as valves, pressure pipes, and landing gears using AM? Are there any flaws in this type of technology?
To answer that, I present you with five key challenges that AM must overcome to become viable for mass production.
1. End-to-End process
AM can reduce the manufacturing chain requirements due to factors such as its near-net-shape nature while assisting with the development of smart factories .
Yet, businesses are struggling with the end-to-end workflow management, i.e. controlling processes like the design, deposition and finishing of parts. This is commonly achieved by utilising multiple software package combinations, namely CAD, Trello, and Excel.
While these are considered good alternatives, they also increase complexity and lower the efficiency of the process.
To tackle this problem, the additive industry has been working on various solutions over the last few years. One, in particular, is the use of workflow automation software (Figure 3). This permits control of the end-to-end process by providing companies with full visibility, streamlining each step from order placement to post-production checks.
2. Standards and guidelines
There are few standards and guidelines available in the AM market currently, making it difficult for highly regulated industries, such as aerospace and oil & gas, to employ components under critical conditions (e.g. corrosive and high-pressure environments).
These industries are also quite stringent, demanding proper certification and qualification of each in-service component.
Nevertheless, efforts from organisations like ISO and ASTM have helped to massively generate standards for AM. In addition, international accredited registrar and classification societies, such as DNV-GL, have been collaborating with industrial partners and research and technology organisations (ROTs) – see Figure 4 – to further the development of guidelines for metal AM .
Published at the beginning of 2020, these guidelines add more clarification to the maritime and oil & gas industries in terms of metal AM, including quality assurance methodologies.
3. Implementation cost
However, investment in the technology can cost thousands. In some cases, like in wire-arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), you need to purchase separate parts (Figure 5): robots, welding equipment, a local exhaust ventilation system, pipework, and power supply.
This involves a lot of work, and a business case here can be challenging for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), for instance. Additionally, industry has to consider factors such as paying for substrate and feedstock materials as well as post-processing equipment for machining, heat treatment, and hot-isostatic pressing.
According to Tim Weber, global head of HP Metal Jet, “3D printer manufacturers have to have superior economics that enable us to compete, not with other additive manufacturing companies, but with traditional methods like investment casting, metal injection moulding and CNC” .
Conversely, industries can overcome these barriers by better understanding the market.
One example is the identification of applications where AM is better suited than traditional methods (injection moulding, forging, forming, CNC machining, etc.), reducing cost and lead time.
Another opportunity is in comprehending how AM can pay back investments on equipment in the long term.
With AM industry maturing, prices will consequently drop, with gradually lower machine, material, equipment, software, and operating costs.
For RTOs and high-standard industries, repeatability is essential. By guaranteeing consistency between AM parts, one can take a step further towards mass production and reliability on in-service components.
It also facilitates increasing the technology readiness level (TRL) of AM.
Yet, production repeatability is a challenge for AM due to differences between fabricated parts, despite keeping constant settings during the material deposition.
Various factors may cause such an issue, including material quality, part orientation within the build platform, and machine calibration. Hence, all parameters in the fabrication process of AM components must be determined, tracked, and controlled to allow for consistency between parts.
Industry currently deals with this problem by developing ways to manage the entire AM process. For instance, manufacturers have been focusing on systems with in-process monitoring and feedback control, helping to improve the repeatability of parts systematically.
5. Material types
Availability is, however, of great concern to achieve a scale in production. This is because the intellectual property of AM manufacturers restricts material diversity, leading to monopoly and consequent limitation of choices to customers.
Certification is yet another obstacle. Despite being required so to guarantee that materials meet equivalent standards to those used for traditional methods, it can be time-consuming and expensive.
Still, businesses are massively supporting the development of new materials by third parties, with companies like Ultimaker collaborating with material suppliers to create innovative material options.
As John Kawola, Ultimaker’s president, stated in an interview: “In the past, most 3D printing technologies were limited to just a handful of materials, primarily for prototyping. And for prototyping, most people were happy with just a handful of materials. The biggest companies in that space, like 3D Systems, EOS and Stratasys didn’t have hundreds of material scientists on staff — they had a few and developed materials for their individual platforms. But once you provide an incentive for the larger plastics companies to be involved, they bring all their collective wisdom into the market, which I think helps everyone.” .
AM has developed rapidly over the last years and is still expected to grow over those to come.
As it provides the manufacturing industry with many opportunities to improve, it also faces inherent challenges before it can be used for production at scale.
To achieve that, overall costs will have to be reduced, workflows reengineered, standards reconsidered, materials innovated, and repeatability guaranteed.
And as the technology matures while addressing these challenges, we can only expect that the adoption of AM in the manufacturing industry will be on the rise.
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 AMFG, “Expert Interview: Ultimaker President John Kawola on the Future of 3D Printing,” 2018. Accessed on 28th March 2020
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