Sep 28, 2016 | By Alec

The industrial 3D printing revolution is often talked about, especially as something that is going to be huge in the near future. And the numbers certainly don’t lie; Gartner polls have shown that 65 percent of supply chain professionals intend to invest in 3D printing within the next five years. But industrial 3D printing can refer to anything from prototypes for car interiors to surgical implants and actual spacecraft components, and it’s very difficult to see how the industrial 3D printing revolution is doing at this very moment – new technological breakthroughs or one-off surgical solutions can’t speak for entire multi-billion dollar sectors.

Fortunately, the European Union has been studying this very issue itself, and just released one of the most comprehensive reports on industrial 3D printing so far. Entitled “Identifying current and future application areas, existing industrial value chains and missing competences in the EU, in the area of additive manufacturing (3D printing)”, it has been compiled by a gargantuan team of EU specialists and looks at the entirety of industrial 3D printing within the European Union. While more than 450 pages long, takes a closer look at the 3D printing obstacles, pitfalls and possibilities the EU found in its industrial circles, as well as at their observations about the current state of what could be the fourth industrial revolution.

But for starters, you could be thinking: why does the EU care about 3D printing? The short answer would be that the European Commission – the EU’s executive platform – is very strongly interested in job creation and economic growth. Unfortunately, more than 3.5 million industrial jobs disappeared within the EU in the wake of the economic crisis. Reindustrialization and economic modernization have since become key targets, and the EU Research and Innovation program Horizon 2020 has a budget of nearly €80 billion to support those efforts over the coming years. Besides Horizon 2020, other instruments such as the European Structural and Investment Funds and the European Fund for Strategic Investments are also supporting investments in innovation and the real economy to foster growth and jobs. It is in that context that the Commission sought to comprehensively map  3D printing in Europe. Dr. Pierre Padilla (IDEA Consult), the main contributor to the report, calls the result “a unique piece of work which should support the development of new collaborations across European regions and players in the future”.

The Commission's focus on Key Enabling Technologies (KETs) highlights multiple advanced technologies and 3D printing is one of them. As part of the Digitising European Industry initiative, the EU is already planning to invest €500 million in a pan-EU network of digital innovation hubs. And with the benefits of 3D printing for key European industries such as engineering, automotive, healthcare and pharmaceuticals becoming more and more visible, the EU is very interested in keeping a close eye on the exact state of industrial 3D printing – and to provide support where necessary.

So what did the report prepared for the European Commission find? The EU seems to have a very healthy 3D printing climate, when it comes to patenting, research, 3D printing services and major companies investing in the technology. But it also became apparent that 3D printing is mainly limited to Western Europe, something which was also seen in funding analyses. While the state of regional 3D printing development differs per specific application and industry, the study found that countries such as Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden have emerged as global leaders in several fields. “Among the key players, German Research and Technology organizations (RTOs) and Printer Manufacturers (and to some extent service providers) occupy a central position. This is particularly the case in the field of metal 3D printing which is seen as a main strength of the European economy,” the report says.

What’s more, these countries stand in stark contrast to those from Eastern Europe. With the exception of Poland, countries such as Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic “are only starting to develop capabilities in the research sector. Investments are being made by manufacturers of printers to enter Eastern European market but the state of play remains at a very early stage,” the experts  say.

In particular, the researchers saw very positive developments in the healthcare, powder-based and wire technology fields, with especially metal 3D printing being a global competitive strength for Europe. “Companies and RTOs are indeed proactively developing this area, making use of metal powders and wires to print molds, structural components in the aeronautic industry, but also a broad range of tools in most sectors,” they say. But even in those leading European nations, the impact of 3D printing should not be overestimated. The experts identified ten areas that are said to be close-to-market (subject to the commercialization of new products and services with a horizon of about 5 years), all of which were analyzed from a value chain perspective. Overall, none of these ten value chains was disrupted yet because of the deployment of 3D printing on a paradigm shifting-scale.

The ‘mature’ 3D printing sectors

Of those ten sectors, the most ‘matured’ industrial applications are 3D printed surgical planning tools, hard and inert implants, injection molds and structural aircraft parts. “These entered or are entering the market as they could benefit from the comparative advantages of AM regarding short series production (mainly product optimization and customization),” the report argues. While thus starting to affect products, their impact is still quite limited so far. However, specific components are making their way to the market, even in complex settings such as in the aerospace industry where structural components are even flying. Even traditional sectors see new moves in their ecosystems with injection molds being printed by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) or titanium blades being printed for large gas turbines.

But even in these industries, significant barriers can be seen. 3D printed surgical planning applications, for instance, suffer from a lack of training, digital skills, and even awareness of what 3D printing can do. The closely related 3D printed implant sector, meanwhile, suffers from additional certification and regulation barriers that have resulted in low adoption rates. Metal airplane components and 3D printed molds, meanwhile, are also facing regulatory, certification and knowledge barriers, poor quality and surface finishing, and the context of under-developed detection and monitoring processes. The lack of high quality 3D printable metal powders, including of aluminum, magnesium and titanium, is also a key problem which according to Dr. Padilla “relates to the efficiency of current 3D printing processes; companies transforming high-end metals are looking forward to 3D-Printers printing faster and in higher quantities to ease market growth.”

But there are plenty of opportunities as well. Especially multidisciplinary collaboration is needed, which needs to bring together material and service providers, as well as surgeons, hospitals and researchers. “Such opportunities can concretize at all levels along the value chain and locally between mold makers and RTOs or AM expert companies, cross-regionally between mold makers and OEMs,” they say.

For 3D printed airplane components in particular, an EU level collaboration platform that links key OEMs and integrators with services and clients from other value chains could make the technology much more attractive and speed up its diffusion across industry. If combined with extensive process and material research as well as increased powder availability, the EU researchers see significant short term production possibilities. “An important aspect is here the development of specific capabilities such as surface finishing: granularity is particularly crucial to components that are foreseen to play a mechanical role. This relates to the overall reflection on how 3D printing can combine better to other technologies, including software,” explains Dr. Padilla.

Intermediary sectors

Several other of the ten main categories have been placed in the ‘intermediary area’, including the 3D printing of car components (both for structural and non-structural applications) and food 3D printing. These have reached the prototyping and tooling stages and a definite market and interested consumers are visible, though the applications are by no means ready for production of something more than short series.

Especially automotive 3D printing is limited by efficiency, surface quality and the small build volumes. 3D printed interiors remain more expensive than conventionally produced alternatives, while post-processing continues to be problematic. “The automotive sector goes very fast, and produces in numbers that are by far larger than the aeronautic sector. At this point of time, 3D printing is not ready for full-scale production. But new developments are taking place that can make us optimistic about the further inclusion of 3D printing in automotive, such as new prototypes like URBEE 2,” Dr. Padilla explained. In addition a lack of knowledge and manufacturing conservatism prevent large-scale adoption as well. 3D printed food, meanwhile, still needs to be extensively studied to properly account for food safety, consumption habits and the effects 3D printing has on the food itself. What’s more, no specific food regulations exist yet. But again, the experts believe that collaboration is key to making these applications full-fledged production options, especially between research centers and OEMs for automotive applications.

Less mature and emerging areas

The same cannot be said for the remaining industrial 3D printing applications analyzed in the report. Especially textile 3D printing (including for the footwear industry), 3D printed home accessories, the production of spare machine parts and construction 3D printing are considered to be in their infancy. It is expected to take years before they reach a mature production phase that should also be associated to new business models, most likely to be platform-based.

This inclusion of spare part production for machines, which could benefit from aviation and automotive successes, is especially surprising. However, the researchers found that distribution networks are completely absent. “All the value chain is currently at an early stage of development: no clear supply chain could be identified beyond specific (and/or isolated) cases,” they noticed. Moreover, the availability of designs and warranties are problematic areas, while the replicability of many parts can be questioned. And even then, you have to wonder if 3D printed metal parts are currently up to par with existing spare parts. “An industrial machine is very costly, and the printing of a spare part could lead to a loss of the associated guarantee; but potential remains as these machines can be used over a long time span and have an important leverage effect like in the packaging and automotive sectors. There is however still a long way to go.” says Dr. Padilla.

The other applications suffer from equally problematic barriers. Construction 3D printing is faced with robotic limitations, material and regulatory challenges, and a very conservative and risk-avoiding culture that lacks awareness about 3D printing possibilities. The textile and footwear sectors are seen as lacking the necessary knowledge, including on materials and CAD software, while textile 3D printing is also unproven. While home decoration through 3D printing (including lighting) is a field that already has grassroots backing through the desktop user movement, that market is seen as too small – faced with too high prices and with technical and material production limitations.

So what needs to happen? Frankly, a lot. The spare part case is probably the most illustrative of the long road toward 3D printing success as it simply requires a lot of work, including extensive research collaborations across the supply chain that include subtractive and additive specialists. The same can be said for the textile applications, which also need extensive software and hardware development to cope with the unique demands of this sector. The housing sector could benefit from extensive cross-value chain collaboration, but financial strategies need to change as well. “Furthermore even and especially in countries that are active in the field there seems to be a need for ‘bridging people’ that understand robotics, software and the construction sector as to make development projects more successful,” they add.

Finally, 3D printed home accessories are expected to continue to develop without or with little exterior interference, though Fab Labs could play a huge role in increasing the market. Could we regular users develop a market for ourselves? Time will tell.


When lined up like this, it certainly seems as though industrial 3D printing is nowhere near ready for the spotlight in Europe, and in many ways that’s true. A lot still simply needs to be done, including by the EU, lawmakers, researchers and companies, before the added value of 3D printing can be realized.

Specifically, the lack of knowledge (both about materials and about 3D printing processes) among industrial players is one of the most recurrent barriers. This translates into a lack of 3D printing skills and an inability to bring the technology to where it is needed. While that does nothing to promote 3D printing, the technology, its costs and post-processing solutions still need to improve considerably as well. “[These problems] come together with difficulties to overcome traditional ways of manufacturing and cultural barriers in private organizations. Barriers to the uptake and deployment of AM [Additive Manufacturing or 3D printing, ed] along the selected value chains are also strongly linked to the structure of the market and composition of the chain (including underlying mechanisms such as the bargaining power or demand),” the researchers conclude.

But it cannot be denied that materials (especially metal powders) are standing in the way of the 3D printing revolution as well. The three most critical high-end metals for Europe that were touched upon in the value chain analyses in this report are aluminum, titanium and magnesium, and those are hardly manufactured within Europe. In fact, much is imported from China, and most powders are in no way optimized for 3D printing purposes. This creates significant manufacturing, quality and finishing challenges. The development of specialized 3D printing powders could make industrial 3D printing far more viable, the researchers argue.

Opportunities and target areas

But the report is also quite optimistic about what the technology can do for the European economy and industries, and provides an extensive list of target areas and challenges that need to be tackled. Perhaps the biggest and overreaching conclusion is that the successful implementation of industrial 3D printing in production requires extensive collaboration – which also became apparent from the ten emerging area reviews. “Collaborations can take place between specific actors acting in a same (regional) ecosystem as one can observe in the field of AM for injection molding; or across European value chain segments (whether across or along value chains),” they write. “Depending on their format, collaborations can involve 3D-printer manufacturers, services providers and OEMs or integrators. They can also involve RTOs players when a need to address particular technological issues is identified.” Such collaborations can also do a lot to sync up Western and European regions, supply and demand, and research and businesses.

Human Resources is also a field that needs to adopt 3D printing. “Skills and the availability of appropriate and multi-disciplinary curricula form a crucial issue to be addressed. This was identified as a key barrier to be overcome in all case studies. Training should be made available which would deal with 3D printing and its particular aspects (such as CAD, materials, management, etc.),” the report advises. That could be coordinated at an EU level, or at a member state level. At the same time, much more awareness on all value chain levels needs to be generated.

But a lot can be done at a technology level as well. R&D is still in its infancy and a competitive market position will require the combination of subtractive and additive production methods, the writers argue. This also means developing new material solutions, as became apparent above. More importantly, 3D printing manufacturing requires extensive standardization and certification efforts – something in which the EU can play an important legislative role as well. This also requires another look at Intellectual Property Rights standards.

On the business side of the equation, new business models will need to be developed that properly accommodate 3D printing – with Local Motors being touted as an excellent example. This also means supporting new cross-regional pilot programs and technology demonstration activities that bring the 3D printing closer to the actual market. “This would allow a better connection between supply and demand as well as to flow knowledge and network towards Eastern European regions,” they add.

Finally, the success of industrial 3D printing hinges on generating successful demand as well. “Whether emanating from users or consumers, demand is key to most AM value chains under the scope. There is an opportunity to stimulate demand in an appropriate way across the value chains under the scope,” they say. On a B-2-B field, co-investment programs could do a lot to overcome price concerns, while even private user platforms can be subsidized to make 3D printing more appealing. Setting up a common repository and providing streamlined information will do wonders too.

Industrial 3D printing, in short, is nowhere near ready to take over entire industries in the EU. But the positive signs are certainly there, and an encouraging EU climate will certainly help to transform proven lab technologies into real commercial production opportunities. The full report can be found here.

The report has been compiled by IDEA Consult in consortium with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and CECIMO and was prepared for the European Commission.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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I.AM.Magic wrote at 9/29/2016 9:08:06 AM:

But, but the media says you just "press a button" and you have your parts! Have I been lied to :(

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