A brief history of 3D printing

Written by Josh Martin, CEO & Co-founder at Fortify

In 1987, the first commercially available 3D printer (SLA-1) hit the market. Over the past 35 years, 3D printing has evolved from a sci-fi technology used to create quick proof-of-concepts with limited functionality to a force that is redefining manufacturing across multiple industries. Since then, the additive manufacturing (AM) market size has been doubling every 3-4 years, with several reports estimating it will break $100B before the end of this decadeWith the expansion of AM technology in recent years, it is easy to assume that rapid growth means that AM is headed for mainstream adoption. While AM technology has grown, it has grown in a relatively narrow application space and is far from creating a meaningful impact on the industry or society as a whole. A better metric for success in the AM industry, rather than market size,  is to look at the number of unique applications in AM that are creating value in ways that traditional manufacturing cannot.  

Global Estimates for 3D Printing Market 2020 - 2025
Image source: figure adapted from ARK Investment Management LLC

The growth of the AM market has been, up until now, powered by prototyping. Advances in the consumer printer segment have made prototyping more accessible than ever before, resulting in more rapid product development. Printed molds, tools, and fixtures have been sought after for decades and are beginning to see wider adoption across multiple industries including medical devices, consumer goods, and industrial manufacturing.  One of my favorite printed mold success stories is that of patient-specific dental aligners provided by Align Technology. As of this writing, Align has served over 10 million patients and has a market cap of over $38B (which is ~17x that of the largest public 3D printing manufacturer).  ARK research claims there’s merely 4% of market penetration of molds and tools, indicating there is plenty of room for growth (see below). While prototyping, tools, and molds are enabling AM to gain traction, manufacturing end-use parts will allow AM to command the space it occupies.  

3D printing application current penetration vs potential market size

Image source: figure adapted from ARK Investment Management LLC

Reaching the end-use parts application space

So how will additive manufacturing reach out into an end-use parts application space? The key lies in the advancement of materials, according to industry veteran, Dr. Paul Jacobs. Dr. Jacobs, who formerly operated as VP of R&D at 3D Systems (DDD) and authored THE SLA guide, Rapid Prototyping & Manufacturing: Fundamentals of Stereolithography (considered to be the 3D printing “bible,”) reflected on the state of the industry after the first commercial systems were launched. He notes, “Two themes stick out from rapid prototyping conference proceedings from the early 90’s: First, the need to improve printed part accuracy, and second, that improvements in available materials were desperately needed in order to break into printing functional parts.” In the past 35 years, the industry has raised the standard on part accuracy and consistency, with SLA/DLP technologies still in the lead, but the overall system architecture hasn’t evolved with functional materials in mind.  

One testimony to the lack of advanced materials in the 3D printing space is the limited availability of composite resins, polymers filled with functional additives that increase performance in specific ways. If you look at injection molding compounds, the highest value materials are fundamentally composites: glass-filled nylon, Torlon®, ceramicfilled PTFE, etc. By comparison, additive manufacturing is still printing commodity plastics that aspire to perform like ABS, polypropylene, and nylon. Until the performance gap between materials available in AM vs traditional manufacturing is closed, many technologies will stall out when trying to make the jump from prototyping and tooling to end-use part applications. At Fortify, we view this gap as an opportunity to apply innovations in hardware and software towards opening the aperture of what materials can be printed. 

While advancing materials available for AM is a clear need, there are several interdependent factors that ultimately determine whether an additive process can scale for a given application. I’ve found the following framework to be useful to predict the success of an AM application. The framework involves three main factors: manufacturing demands, geometric complexity, and material capabilities. Finally, after considering these variables together, it is important to evaluate market size for any given application to determine if the final use case will truly create a disruptive technology.  


Manufacturing Demands

Questions to consider when evaluating an application for manufacturing demands are: can the process in question print the desired part and meet the necessary specifications including size, accuracy, resolution, and tolerance at the needed quantity? Additional factors include process repeatability, cost, and throughput. These criteria are often competing against benchmarks set by conventional manufacturing processes, and typically are what determine the crossover point when comparing AM and a conventional manufacturing process, illustrated below. 

Traditional vs additive manufacturing demand crossover point

Geometric Complexity

There is an often-misunderstood adage that “complexity comes for free with additive manufacturing.” The general idea is that the more complex a geometry, the better suited it is for AM because the cost of manufacturing increases in conventional manufacturing but stays flat for additive manufacturing. However, most people forget that this is typically a bug of AM processes, not a feature. For an application to be disruptive and a true fit for additive, the design complexity must add some type of value that can’t be achieved by conventional manufacturing. This ‘bug’ of favoring geometries of greater complexities in AM can be leveraged to create unique value. Examples of this include intricate part consolidation (the most famous example being the GE LEAP engine), material and weight savings through topology optimization, conformal cooling in tooling, etc. 

Material Capabilities

No matter how far manufacturing and design capabilities evolve, at the end of the day, you need to have a material that can meet the application needs for a disruptive use case.  In ideal cases, materials performance is elevated by design for additive manufacturing and creates “architected materials” – which we’ll cover in more detail in a later article. Material capabilities can be determined from a standard stress-strain curve: strength, stiffness, and elongation. In addition to these mechanical aspects, environmental specifications play a significant role for end-use parts, driving requirements in thermal performance (heat deflection temperature), water absorption, and even biocompatibility. Compared to traditional manufacturing, the current state of functional polymers available for additive manufacturing is a fraction of what is possible across mechanical, thermal, electrical, and other specifications. 

Introducing a new class of materials and applications

At Fortify, we’re innovating across materials science, hardware, and software to create disruptive applications in the AM industry. The recent announcement of Radix™ 3D Printable Dielectrics family, launched in partnership with Rogers Corporation, is an example of how we’ve leveraged advances in hardware and software to unlock a new class of high-performance materials in additive manufacturing. Radix is a heavily filled photopolymer designed for composite digital light processing (DLP) 3D printing and made possible through Fortify’s Continuous Kinetic Mixing (CKM) technology and FLUX printing systems. 

The materials properties of the Radix portfolio provide an industry breakthrough by providing a tunable range of dielectric constants with loss tangents at high frequencies that are one to two orders of magnitude less than traditional photopolymers (see datasheet here). By leveraging Fortify’s design workflow, radio frequency (RF) engineers can manufacture functional parts that are not possible with traditional manufacturing. The result is end-use RF and microwave devices with advantages in size, weight, and powerTo learn more, check out our e-book sponsored in partnership with Rogers and MWJ. Also, watch our joint Fortify and Rogers webinar on-demand, Development of a 3D printable photopolymer for real RF applications.

What’s next

In summary, the partnership between Rogers and Fortify is a prime example of how high-value materials from traditional manufacturing environments (polymer-composite PCB laminates in this case) can make the jump to additive manufacturing and enables new and disruptive applications. By continuing to leverage Fortify’s advances in hardware and software, new functional polymers are expanding what’s possible with AM, bringing us closer to disrupting the end-use parts marketI’m excited to share these advances with you as we take a closer look at some of Fortify’s other recent material introductions, such as high-temperature electrostatic discharge (ESD) and thermally conductive polymers.  In addition, stay tuned as we take a look at how architected materials fit into the application fit framework. Most importantly, thank you for your time and attention.