What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021

3D printing technologies will continue on their path of disruption this year.
Donovan Alexander

Now that we are officially one month into the new year, it is time to start looking at what the upcoming months have in store for the additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, industry. Due to current events, 3D printing technologies are in a very different place than they were at the start of the previous year. 

However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. As we have recently learned from CES 2021, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of a wide range of technologies and trends, and a number of these are salient to additive manufacturing. For example, automation and digitation are more important than ever.

Pair that with the growing need for supply chain resilience, on-demand short-batch production, and relocalization, and you have the perfect catalyst for additive manufacturing adoption. The AM market is still very much on its way to reaching an estimated value of 26.68 billion by 2027.

If anything, 3D printing technologies were one of the unsung heroes of 2020. COVID-19 demonstrated AM's potential to both consumers and businesses. In many ways, the pandemic has put 3D printing on people's radar. As you are probably well aware, the 3D printing industry collectively produced a wide range of tools, masks, and devices to support the pandemic relief efforts. These efforts not only highlighted AM's use in rapid prototyping but also showcased its potential power for full production.

Leveraging their on-demand manufacturing capabilities, companies within the industry (as well as volunteers with consumer units) produced ventilator valves, PPE for essential workers, and medical devices. Moving into 2021 and beyond, we are likely to see the health and wellness industry become a key adopter of 3D printing. However, things won't stop there. 

Outside the bubble of the pandemic, AM was leveraged to produce cars, fabricate organs, improve aerospace designs, and even create food. From aeronautics to the automotive industry, AM will continue its slow and steady revolution throughout 2021. Here is what you should expect for this year. Curious about additive manufacturing

The aviation industry will continue to push AM and use 3D printing technologies to produce end-use parts

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
Boom Supersonic's XB1. Source: Boom Supersonic

The world of aeronautic engineering has found ways to incorporate AM into their design and manufacturing workflows. AM still falls short of more traditional subtractive manufacturing methods when it comes to the mass production of parts in terms of economy of scale. 

However, when it comes down to low-production or highly-customizable fabrication, AM truly shines. We are seeing companies like GE Aviation, Airbus, and Boeing fabricate essential parts for commercial planes. In one example, a Colorado-based startup developing supersonic passenger airplanes, Boom Supersonic, has unveiled its XB-1 supersonic aircraft prototype.

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The aircraft features the use of printed parts for the engine hardware, environmental control systems, and other structural components. According to the team, there are more than 300 unique printed parts on their supersonic aircraft. 

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
This illustration indicates the many places the Boom team used 3D-printed drill blocks to precisely drill holes. Source: Boom Supersonic

Of those 300 parts, 21 are metallic, made using the VELO3D's metal 3D printing technologies. VELO3D helped Boom Supersonic fabricate some of the XB-1's most complicated titanium parts, including the manifolds for the variable bleed valve (VBV) system, which expels excess air from the engine compressor.

The route to creating VBV manifolds using more traditional machining, welding, or casting is costly and timely. Using AM, part creation may take only weeks, compared to months using traditional methods. Even more so, it allowed engineers at Boom Supersonic to create their desired part geometry. The parts created were 40x times more durable and 50% lighter. 

AM parts will likely start making their way into more prototypes and commercial planes this year. Why? Companies are able to reduce the costs, weight, and production times of their designs thanks to 3D printing. This is a golden opportunity for aerospace engineers and the core value proposition driving AM adoption. Most, if not all, cases on today's list center around these benefits. As for Boom Supersonic, the company plans on testing its XB-1 this year. 

3D-printed rocket engine components will be behind the first private moon mission

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
Rocket Lab's electric Rutherford engine with 3D-printed components. Source: Rocket Lab

The minds over at Rocket Lab have consistently praised the potential and applications of 3D printing technology. A leader in commercial satellite launches, they have used a novel 3D printing technology to create the combustion chamber, injectors, pumps, and main propellant valves of their flagship "Rutherford" rocket engine. 

Dubbed Electron Beam Melting (EBM), the process utilizes a high-power electron beam that has a high melting capacity. Parts are formed in a vacuum-controlled environment, maximizing precision. The end result for Rocket Lab is the ability to create lightweight and straightforward rocket engines. Using their AM engines, Rocket Labs will later this year launch a CubeSat into lunar orbit for NASA. The company has already launched 97 satellites into orbit on its vehicles.

You might be able to get your hands on a 3D printed car this year

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
The Bugatti Bolide (above) has 75 3D-printed parts. Source: Bugatti

Aside from its ferocious looks, the 2020 Bugatti Bolide boasts some impressive numbers. The track-only hypercar has 1,842bhp, a 0-60 time of 2.7 seconds, and can move at a blistering 498 kph (310 mph). Even more impressive, the car has an incredible weight-to-power ratio of 0.67 kg/PS. This is all made possible thanks to Bugatti's new W16 engine with 1,850 PS and a vehicle dry weight of just 1,240 kg (2,733 lbs). The hypercar is laced with a wide range of carbon fiber and titanium 3D printed throughout the vehicle to accomplish this feat. 

Without compromising the durability of their vehicle, Bugatti was able to improve the weight-to-power ratio of their specialty vehicle dramatically. 3D printing in the automotive world is nothing new, but the industry has been slow to adopt the technology. However, in 2021, we expected to see automakers further their use of AM for unique projects that require only low production numbers.

The automaker Chevrolet incorporates 75 printed parts in their racing Corvettes, helping the company save hundreds of thousands of dollars and improve driving performance. They will continue to use AM in their racing cars in 2021. 

While the Bolide is an experimental vehicle and is not intended for commercial sale, if you are interested in getting your hands on a 3D printed vehicle, 2021 may be your year. 1016 Industries will be debuting its first 3D-printed full body kit this year. The Miami-based company will offer consumers a prototype 3D-printed full body kit for the McLaren 720S.

Almost every part of the supercar's exterior is 3D printed. The company hopes to show how AM can be used to produce parts at a significant scale. Although they are yet to determine whether 3D-printed body kits are durable enough to match the performance of traditional mold-cured kits, the company is planning to develop printed kits for a range of high-end vehicles.

3D printing will continue to be used to tackle the supply chain challenges brought on by the pandemic

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
The original valve on the left and the 3D printed and redesigned one on the right by Isinnova. Source: 3D Printing Media Network

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Italy was ravaged by the virus. Hospitals in the region struggled to have the right amount of medical tools and supplies for essential and lifesaving tasks. In one example, a hospital did not have the right amount of replacement valves for their ventilators. The hospital decided to collaborate with the local 3D printing company Isinnova to reverse engineer and 3D print the device for the hospital. 

The valves worked and were immediately put into circulation to alleviate the immediate shortage and save lives. This is one of maybe thousands of examples of how 3D printing is being used to combat the pandemic.

It has also been used for the rapid production of face-shields, hands-free devices, and nasopharyngeal swabs for virus testing. Well over 2000 companies, and numerous non-profits, have been documented as using AM to assist communities and hospitals around the world. 2021 is going to continue this trend.

There will be continued material innovation in health and wellness

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
A 3D-printed heart created by Rice University. Source: Rice University 

Experts are betting that the $50 billion health and wellness industry is set to see a number of advancements in 3D printing in 2021. Occasionally overlooked in terms of AM, this industry has seen some of its biggest changes thanks to 3D printing. AM allows for hyper-customization.

Researchers are working on developing ways to print functioning body parts in the future. Human heart valves, for instance, are now being 3D printed, although none have been transplanted into people yet. While the use of these parts in living humans is still some way off, other advances are already being used.

For example, 3D printing has been used to generate accurate replicas of a patient’s body part for surgeons to use in planning surgeries. In reconstructive and plastic surgeries, implants can be customized for individual patients using “biomodels”And there have been significant advances in 3D print methods in areas like pharmacology and dentistry over the past few years.

We have also seen the emergence of the science fiction world of 3D printed organs. This novel field is using biomaterials to create biological tissue. Over the last five years alone, researchers have manufactured hearts, lungs, livers, corneas, and even human skin for victims. While there is still a ways to go before these can be used in humans, the technology holds out hope for an eventual end to organ rejection and the need for organ donors.

You might even be able to 3D print your food this year

What To Expect From Additive Manufacturing in 2021
Source: byflow

The idea of 3D printing food is not new. However, the technology has started to mature over the years, giving consumers more affordable and tasty options. Most 3D food options work similarly to the FDM 3D printing process in which material is extruded onto a build platform layer by layer. In this case, the 3D printed object is edible. Companies like Naural Machines and byFlow offer consumers 3D food printing machines that are intuitive to operate.

Like something out of a science-fiction film, users place "food filaments" into a machine and select the dish that they want to create. You won't be able to print a cheeseburger yet, but simple deserts and savory geometric treats are possible. Be on the lookout for more AM food options this year.