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Work of the Future Today

September 2019
Haden Quinlan, Kaitlyn Gee, Eldar Shakirov
Planting the seeds for manufacturing’s additive revolution
MIT 3D printing

Haden Quinlan is program manager for MIT’s Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies (APT). Kaitlyn Gee is a PhD candidate working with Professor John Hart in the Mechanosynthesis Research Group. Eldar Shakirov is a PhD candidate at Skoltech in the Cyber-Physical Systems Laboratory.


The advent of inexpensive desktop 3D printers for plastics—some with a retail cost beneath USD $200—inspires us to envision a world where the 3D-printer is as common as 2D inkjet printers are today, in home offices and workplaces. In this vision, consumers would become producers of their own products, from replacement parts for their appliances to ornaments for their desks. This vision was perhaps best summarized by The Economist in 2011: “If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. [...] Just press print.”

Is this bold vision of the infinitely-empowered consumer reasonable? Like the Star Trek “Replicator,” will you be able to print anything with ease?

In short, it depends, but in-depth knowledge of 3D printing by industry will ultimately realize its transformative potential.

3D-printing, more broadly called ‘additive manufacturing’ (AM) to denote its important implications for production applications, is not as straightforward as the Economist suggested eight years ago. The first significant difference is that customers need not own or operate the printer themselves. While purchasing a printer for home use is a popular option, customers may also patron a range of services - from local maker spaces like Somerville’s Artisan’s Asylum to digitally-driven service bureaus like Shapeways and Xometry. Furthermore, in many ways, the challenges that have limited the adoption of AM for hobbyists and consumers are the same challenges that limit its current penetration in industrial settings.

The most visible challenge to adoption pertains to the current limitations of technology itself. Though many of today’s 3D printing methods have been used for over 25 years, only recently have the capabilities of AM—and organizations’ mastery of the technology—reached the point where the economics of the technology make it viable for production volumes. And, even still, so-called “technology lighthouses” are few-and-far between, and applications remain limited in most industries.

Producing volume quantities of parts with AM is complicated. It requires a well-trained workforce with knowledge of the printing process itself, design methods specific to AM, preparation of the shop floor, material flow logistics, and post-processing of components (which can be more costly, time-consuming, or complex than the actual printing process). As a result, most current uses of AM for production are limited to applications where the geometry-derived performance value of AM components exceeds the costs (both capital and organizational) of learning how to implement the technology. A few high-profile examples include a gas turbine burner by Siemens, a roof bracket from the BMW i8 Roadster, or turbine blades by GE.

This realist picture of AM discounts the incredible value it can bring—from lightweight, geometry-optimized aerospace components to new medical devices that can solve the hardest challenges in orthodontics and reconstructive medicine. Importantly, AM requires the same skills—from basic design to engineering simulation—be applied in new contexts, with new skills that relate a rich understanding of the AM process chosen to the part’s design and its performance, ease of manufacture, and its overall cost. Arguably, the workforce “skills gap” for AM is one of the greatest barriers to its adoption. It’s vital that engineers, designers and architects develop the necessary skillset to unlock the immense benefits of AM. In some cases, this requires upending traditional manufacturing thinking—which focuses on what you can’t produce, from undercuts and radii—to a creativity-first design paradigm. Our work with Siemens—and many other conversations held with industry leaders at Boeing, Volkswagen, Stryker, and others—suggests that engineers need to learn to think out-of-the-box, and to relate their experience and creativity to the process and software used to bring their ideas to life.

Another challenge associated with mainstream AM adoption is the capital investment required. When measured as a ratio against its overall process throughput, AM performs significantly worse than mass-production methods such as injection molding. Due to this, and other factors, AM is an expensive process to initiate, and its marginal cost per part remains high. This factor, in tandem with the cost of scaling from a workforce perspective, can deter organizations from implementing AM and explains why its primary uses reside in high-value industries such as aerospace or medical devices. Still, full-scale adoption in even these industries will require the regulatory landscape move beyond the ad-hoc, part-specific qualification regimes of today and instead toward robust and repeatable standardized methods.

The AM industry is only beginning to hit its inflection point, and strong growth (and resolution of the aforementioned challenges) is foreseeable. According to the 2019 Wohlers Report - the canonical industry survey—the AM industry has enjoyed an impressive 30-year combined annual growth rate of 26.9% with 33.5% growth in 2018. Yet, the total sales of AM equipment and services are still less than 0.1% of manufacturing overall. Though perhaps we may never use AM to print a Stradivarius, the technology offers transformative potential in how products are designed, produced, and delivered to consumers, and we are only now planting the seeds for this transformation.