Blog Post

What are the Biggest Challenges for the 3D Printing Industry?

3D Printing equipment – What do you really need?

What are the biggest challenges for the 3D printing industry? They fall into four major areas.

  • Equipment
  • Materials
  • Repeatability
  • Post-Processing

Buyers need to determine the best technology to use for a specific application. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and the research to perform may be considerable. According to Statista, the most popular 3D printing technologies are fused deposition modeling (FDM), fused filament fabrication (FF), and selective laser sintering (SLS). Yet, stereolithography (SLA) and variants such as PµSL for micro 3D printing also have strong advantages depending on your application and the type of properties you need the part to have.

Equipment challenges don’t end with cost or complexity, however. Buyers need to have enough 3D printing projects for solid return on investment (ROI). They also need to select 3D printing equipment that supports the accuracy, resolution and precision that is required. All three of these specifications are used widely; however, this terminology may be misunderstood. Buyers also need to think about 3D printer speed, and the volumes at which other manufacturing processes become more cost-effective.

3D Printing Materials

Most 3D printers are designed to process either polymers, metals, composites, ceramics, or glass. There is equipment that can process multiple materials, such as polymers and ceramics; however, these machines are for higher-end applications. With less advanced 3D printers, the selection of individual materials may also be limited. Although some members of the 3D printing industry have an open material system, others limit choices to their company’s own materials.

Material selection is also challenging because not all of the materials that can be used in production are available for 3D printing. In part, that’s because some metals and polymers cannot be temperature-controlled enough to support additive manufacturing. Material selection can be difficult enough because of the tradeoffs involved in balancing an application’s requirements against its material’s properties. Using  different materials during prototyping and production adds complexity.

Challenges with materials extend to biomedical products. According to an article published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “the limited choice of materials suitable for designing membrane modules is the main challenge.” Plus, with all types of 3D printing materials, the end-use properties are not the same as with traditional materials. For example, ABS plastic that is 3D printed does not have the same impact resistance as ABS plastic that is micro machined or micro injection molded.

3D Printer Repeatability

Repeatability is also a challenge for the 3D printing industry. That’s because the location of the build on the printing surface can affect the height, width, depth, and weight of the final product. According to a Deloitte study about 3D printing quality assurance, manufacturers are concerned that 3D printing can’t ensure quality in any location under any set of conditions.

This lack of repeatability can reduce yields and slow throughputs, but the relationship between repeatability and precision is of special concern. Precision, the ability to reproduce a measurement, isn’t the same as accuracy, which is generally described as the closeness of a measurement to the true value. High-resolution 3D printing is possible, however, as microscale 3D printing demonstrates and tolerances within +/-25µm are possible using PµSL when printing micro parts.

Part Features: Hole arrays of 50, 100, 200, and 300 um​, Varying pillar designs (solid & hollowed out)​, Open channels varying widths​, Wall thicknesses ranging from 10-220 microns​
50µm holes printed on the microArch S240 system in RG
50µm holes using alternative micro feature material and SLA system

Post-Processing and the 3D Printing Industry

Most 3D printed parts need some form of cleanup, or post-processing, to remove support material from the build. Parts surfaces also require smoothing to achieve the required surface finish. Various post-processing methods can be used. Examples include water jetting, sanding, chemical soaking and rinsing, and manual finishing. Regardless of the method, they all add costs and extend project timelines.

According  to a Wohler’s report about the state of the 3D printing industry, 27% of the total costs of producing a prototype can be attributed to post-processing. Yet, cost isn’t the only concern. For example, 3D Natives reports that 52% of respondents say that 3D printing makes it hard to achieve a consistent surface finish while 53% of respondents say that post-processing cycle times take too long.

BMF’s PµSL 3D printing technology can achieve a mirror-like finish with a top surface finish of 0.4-0.8µm Ra.

Valve for gene sequencer

Additional Challenges for the 3D Printing Industry

Challenges related to equipment, materials, repeatability, and post-processing aren’t the only issues facing the 3D printing industry. There’s also a lack of standards, design guidelines, and skilled talent. In addition, potential customers are concerned about sustainability and environmental health and safety. BMF, the pioneer in microscale 3D printing, is tackling these challenges head on. Learn more about us.