How 3-D printing is moving from the lab to factory floor

April 28, 2017



As more manufacturers eye 3-D printers for production, they are learning how it may redefine their entire industry.

3-D printing technology is slowly emerging from its role as an efficient prototype generator to that of a producer of finished, market-ready goods. As manufacturers eye this emerging technology, they are beginning to consider how it will fundamentally alter the factory floor as a replacement for or complement to traditional manufacturing tools, such as injection molding, casting, machining, and other systems.

Early adopters have emerged, and they are encountering challenges and experimenting with solutions from which others may learn. Managing a 3-D printing production facility is raising new issues with which manufacturers must contend, and as they resolve those issues, additive manufacturing is edging further toward increased adoption. Five principal developments are causing traditional manufacturers to open up to the possibility of using 3-D printing for production:

Optimized printer fleet management

To date, most 3-D printers that have found a home in industry have done so as one-off installations that manufacturers have managed individually, mostly for the production of prototypes. That’s a far cry from what’s necessary to operate the sophisticated fleet management systems that enterprising companies have developed to operate large installments of traditional manufacturing equipment. These fleets are typically centrally managed to better detect possible problems and ensure maximum production availability. As 3-D printing operations grow in size and scope, solutions for managing a fleet of 3-D printers will need to be developed.

That is happening, albeit slowly. Early approaches to fleet management have been created by companies that have gradually amassed a pool of 3-D printers of increasing size and complexity. Materialise, headquartered in Belgium with branches worldwide, operates one of the largest 3-D printing facilities in the world, and it has focused heavily on developing software to manage its fleet of printers. Bart Van der Schueren, Materialise’s CTO, says the company has developed “specific software tools that allow us to maintain control over our many printers. This permits us to monitor which specific part is printing on which machine and when. That allows us to trace a part back to a specific print if something goes wrong.” Van der Schueren adds that enabling printers manufactured by different companies to seamlessly communicate is also vital to operating a large number of 3-D printers. To that end, says Van der Schueren, Materialise has “been developing a kind of a unified or neutral interface that is able to talk to these different machines.”

As the use of 3-D printers for manufacturing purposes grows, the industry can expect to see the emergence of features that include more localization,load balancing, scheduling, troubleshooting, and contingency planning. As these features mature, productivity will improve, the cost of 3-D printing will decrease, and the industry will be able to increase its production volumes.

Managing a 3-D printing production facility is raising new issues with which manufacturers must contend, and as they resolve those issues, additive manufacturing is edging further toward increased adoption.

Automation of changeovers and production setup

Running a typical 3-D print is hardly self-sufficient. Simply switching from one print job to the next typically involves physically removing finished products from the printer, cleaning the printer’s production platform, and reloading the printer with fresh raw materials (and possibly replacing them with new materials).

Additional manpower is necessary to prepare digital files for production and send data to the printer. Altogether, so much effort is required for changeovers between print runs, it can significantly affect operational efficiency and dissuade manufacturers from the widespread adoption of 3-D printing for production.

Some printers are taking steps toward addressing these issues by changing the way the printers themselves are designed. New printers from Carbon, for example, are being designed with a printer platform that can be removed entirely and replaced with a fresh one immediately after a print job is completed. This speeds up the cleaning process, allowing it to happen in parallel with the subsequent print job. Whenever a print job is complete, the cleaned platform from the prior job is ready to go. Alternatively, some service providers are planning for a future in which factory robots are used to automate the removal and replacement of platforms and the cleaning of finished goods, creating a continuous production flow.

Until then, expect incremental process improvements as the industry matures and as manufacturers learn to adopt the technology. Pieter Limburg, Head of Business Development and Sales at Shapeways, a global 3D-printing service bureau that ships 3-D printed products worldwide, notes that most 3-D printers on the market today were not designed for full-scale production. “When we bought our first machines, we were told the printers were made to produce only three or four items a week,” says Limburg. “And here we are running these machines 24/7 in a factory. It was a combination of a brilliant team, some software that we wrote ourselves, and keeping those learnings within the organization to improve our processes bit by bit.”

Materials designed for production rather than prototypes

The plastic powders used for the earliest generation of 3-D printers made for some impressive proofs of concept, but while those miniature chess pieces and toy figurines were great for show, they weren’t physically up to par with products produced through traditional processes like injection molding. To take the industry from prototyping to production, higher-quality raw materials would have to be developed.

That’s an advance that’s coming along surprisingly quickly—faster than the other challenges on this list. For example, Shapeways enables its customers to print products in their choice of more than 50 different materials, including steel, porcelain, and gold. A ring made at Shapeways with 925 sterling silver is the same sterling silver ring one would find in a jewelry store. Carbon, a 3-D printing company that uses a variety of quick-hardening liquid resins in its printers, has developed raw materials that are flame-retardant, allowing users to print finished goods that can be used in automotive and other heat-sensitive applications.

Ultimately, 3-D printing stands to surpass the material capabilities of traditional manufacturing because its processes permit a higher level of detail that can even allow for printing at the nanoscale level. Says Eric Duoss, a materials scientist and engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “Because of the geometric complexity that additive manufacturing enables, you can tune or control material properties such as density, stiffness, strength, and thermal expansion by designing complex geometries, or microarchitectures. We are creating materials via micro-architected design that have properties or property combinations that were previously unobtainable.”

In-process inspections for quality control

Depending on the product, a 3-D printing run can take several hours. If a finished product does not meet customer expectations and must be printed again, manufacturers waste both time and materials. How can manufacturers best avoid such scenarios? The answer is to catch potential errors during the printing process.

Materialise is addressing this challenge through a system called the Materialise Inspector, which is designed to automatically predict and detect production errors. While the Inspector and other 3-D printing quality-control efforts are in their early days, their functionality is essential for the industry to move toward widespread 3-D production. “We understand that this functionality is necessary for production so we can remove the need for costly trial-and-error testing for our customers,” affirms Van der Schueren.

Being able to handle large amounts of data is another big part of achieving 3-D printing quality control. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, specialists have designed additive manufacturing hardware that captures 20,000 variables in situ, with 600 of those metrics captured each second during a production run. Using high-performance computing techniques, specialists then extract usable information from those variables to ensure product quality and improve the production process with each iteration.

To take the industry from prototyping to production, higher-quality raw materials would have to be developed [and] that’s an advance that’s coming along surprisingly quickly—faster than the other challenges on this list.

Integrated 3-D printing and traditional manufacturing processes

No matter how big additive manufacturing gets, traditional manufacturing processes will never entirely disappear. They are very cost-effective and efficient for many types of products, and that is unlikely to change. In fact, most manufacturing operations will likely consist of a hybrid of traditional and 3-D printing operations. So for 3-D printers to become a part of the production process, they will need to be capable of integrating with existing production lines and processes. Effective integration will optimize operations by reducing cycle times without sacrificing time or accuracy.

Companies like Materialise are tackling this issue by working to integrate their products with those of other parties in the industry, such as Siemens’ PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) manufacturing software, NX. Such integrations enable engineers to treat 3-D printers like any other piece of equipment on the manufacturing floor.

Journey to mainstream manufacturing

As the industry’s pioneers have discovered, the learning curve for 3-D printing is a significant one, but it is being successfully surmounted as early adopters overcome key obstacles, one by one.

Today, each printer is different. Even printers of the same make and model have slight production variances. While issues like this can vex engineers, they are nonetheless adapting to the new technology as they determine how best to use 3-D printing in a production environment in a way that ensures prints are reliable and consistent and can be accurately reproduced.

We are still in the early days of this manufacturing industry shift, but innovation is robust, as early adopters know the ultimate market opportunity is massive. In the next two to five years, advances like the ones discussed above should be commonplace as 3-D printers begin to occupy more real estate on the factory floor.


Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email