Additive manufacturing: where it’s been, where it’s going

Posted by Monika Mahto and Geetendra Wadekar

For quite some time, we’ve been following the many ways in which 3D printing has entered our lives. More and more we see companies using AM technologies to make products stronger, smaller, faster, better, or cheaper. In terms of industry applications, at a basic level, AM is helping people build a car and a home. More notably, the technology is helping to save lives. Here we present five of the noteworthy developments in additive manufacturing so far.

Advancing AM technologies–improving existing technologies or developing new ones

In the past year, several AM technologies were developed in conventional and hybrid manufacturing that promise to improve product quality and could lead to cost savings in the coming years.

Conventional AM system developments–focusing on precision and speed–include microscale continuous optical printing, which can produce microbots smaller than the width of a single hair, and continuous liquid interface production (CLIP), which can make 3D printing up to 100 times faster, among other developments.1

There have also been recent developments in hybrid systems that combine traditional and additive manufacturing processes to build complex parts within a single production cycle, capitalizing on the benefits of each manufacturing method. For example, millGrind, introduced by German machine tool maker ELB-Schliff, offers additive laser cladding as well as the more traditional subtractive grinding and milling processes to build complex parts for aerospace engines.2

Ascending the value chain–greater than the sum of its parts

AM is moving up the value chain, adding end-part production to its already well-established role in modeling and prototyping, with some exciting developments in the automotive and construction industries. At the recent North American International Auto Show, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) revealed the Shelby Cobra with 3D printed components, including large body panels and chassis; the car is a plug-and-play testing platform for 3D printing.3 In another fascinating example, Chinese engineers constructed a five-story apartment and a lavish villa in less than a day using construction materials, hardening agents, and recycled construction waste.

Marching ahead–breakthroughs in healthcare

The business case for 3D printing in pre-operation planning and producing prosthetics and implants is well established; for instance, 90% of the plastic shells for custom-in-the-ear hearing aids used worldwide were manufactured additively in 2015.4

Beyond these traditional applications, the healthcare industry has advanced AM’s applications in several ways. The University of Maryland printed vascular grafts consisting of a biocompatible and biodegradable polyester that can be sutured and performs without problems such as stenosis and thrombosis.5 Such developments in vascularization techniques could support the growth of artificial organs and tissues for a variety of applications, ranging from congenital heart diseases to craniofacial defects.Similar strides were made with 3D printed bone implants. Researchers at the University of Tokyo developed the technology to print an entire bone with an accuracy of 0.1mm.7 On the pharma side, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first 3D printed medicine to treat epileptics, built additively, in August last year.8

Advanced materials–adding variety to additive manufacturing

In recent months, developments in advanced materials made the news as leading AM companies introduced materials that could lead to improved product functionality or even pave the way for entirely new products. These developments include wax/resin hybrids for jewelry, nano-filled resins for orthodontics, and carbon fiber-filled copolyester and refractory metals (metals that are highly resistant to heat and wear) such as tungsten, niobium, etc., for several industrial applications.In one example, a leading research and technology company recently developed a ceramic resin that is ten times stronger than traditional ceramic materials and can withstand temperatures over 1,000 degrees Celsius.10 These and other developments in advanced materials are covered in Deloitte’s recently published report, which discusses materials such as graphene that may come to the fore in the coming years.

Open-source-shifting from proprietary to public users

In the past decade, expiration of key patents related to stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) fueled open-source developments making plastics-based printers available at competitive prices enabling widespread consumer applications. 2015 marked an important turn in the history of AM intellectual property, as certain metals patents for laser metal deposition (LMD) and electron beam melting (EBM) expired in November.11 While this holds great potential for metals-based industrial printers, time will tell if this will also translate into metals-based desktop printers in offices and homes enabling on-demand production of complex metal products.

As we researched these developments in AM technologies, materials, and applications, the question no longer remains how AM will replace traditional manufacturing, but rather how it will complement it, resulting in improved manufacturing processes and products. Advancements in approaches such as hybrid manufacturing suggest that this may be the route AM takes to achieve greater adoption in the manufacturing industry.

What’s next? AM technologies are evolving each day and we encourage you to check out Deloitte’s ongoing research on 3D Opportunity.

1 Michal Addady, Fortune, “Why these researchers want to inject 3D printed ‘microfish’ into your body,”, accessed January 12, 2016; Ray Gronberg, The Herald-Sun, “UNC team helps advance 3D printing tech,”, accessed January 12, 2016.
2 TE Halterman,, “ELB-Schliff’s New millGrind Device Melds 3D Printing & Grinding,”, accessed December 17, 2015.
3 Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “ORNL revealed the 3D printed Shelby Cobra,”, accessed December 17, 2015.
4 Terry Wohlers, Wohlers report 2015: Additive manufacturing and 3D printing state of the industry, 2015.
5 John P. Fisher, “3D-Printed Biodegradable Polymeric Vascular Grafts,” Advanced Healthcare Materials (2015), DOI: 10.1002/adhm.201500725.
6 John P. Fisher, “3D-Printed Biodegradable Polymeric Vascular Grafts,” Advanced Healthcare Materials (2015), DOI: 10.1002/adhm.201500725.
7 Whitney Hipolite,, “European Countries to Begin 3D Printing Human Bones,”, accessed December 15, 2015.
8 Claire Chabaud, Sculpteo, “3D Printing for the medical industry,”, accessed December 14, 2015.
9 Terry Wohlers, Wohlers report 2015: Additive manufacturing and 3D printing state of the industry, 2015.
10 HRL Laboratories, LLC, “Breakthrough achieved in ceramics 3D printing technology,”, accessed January 13, 2016.
11 United States Patent and Trademark Office, “Search for Patents,”, accessed December 15, 2015.

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