Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing)

Updated: May 10

By Sumay McPhail


COVID19 is forcing many manufacturing companies to rethink the complexity of their supply chains and reliance on so many parts. Additive manufacturing (AM), also called 3D printing, could be a big winner. To find out we answer several key questions:

  1. What is Additive Manufacturing?

  2. Why is AM Important?

  3. What is Traditional Manufacturing?

  4. Why are Businesses Interested AM?

  5. Who are the leaders in Additive Manufacturing?

  6. What is AM used for today?

  7. What is AM Headed in the Future?

1. What is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM), also called 3D printing, is a manufacturing process that builds objects by adding layer-by-layer. AM stands in contrast to traditional “Injection Molding” and "Subtractive Manufacturing" processes that remove material from larger blocks. COVID19 has forced many manufacturing companies to rethink the complexity of their supply chains and reliance on so many parts. AM provides a potential solution that can also be harnessed more easily by new startups without the capital to build large manufacturing plants. AM can also reduce the time required to design and produce manufactured goods, save on material costs, create more complex objects, tailor goods to individual consumers, and create stronger, lighter and more flexible objects. In this article we share what we have learned about AM and how it might be changing the future of how we make things.

AM started with simple plastic 3D printers in the 1980s. Rapid prototyping was the first application mostly using plastics to make models that were then mass produced using traditional methods. This first type of 3D printing is called Stereolithography which uses uniquely designed 3D printing machine called stereolithograph apparatus to convert liquid plastic into solid objects. The first stereolithograph patent was filed in 1986 by Charles ("Chuck") Hull who would later found 3D Systems and is recognized today as the Father of 3D Printing (shown below next to a Dungeons & Dragons character he inspired us to create...a monk specializing in the use of nunchucks with the ability to conjurer objects out of thin air).

AM was widely used for prototyping in the 1990s but it wasn't until the 2000s that you started to see 3D printers replace traditional methods for more practical end uses. Materialise, a 3D printing services company collaborated with Phonak, a Swiss hearing aid manufacturer, to develop the first mass produced 3D printed hearing aids back in 2000. Their success showed that 3D printing as a manufacturing solution could be applied to more than just prototyping.

After the Global Financial Crisis the cost of 3D printing continued to sink drastically to the point that consumers could purchase them. A wave of enthusiasm sent 3D printing company valuations through the roof until 2015. Investors were betting that every household would soon own a 3D printer, but the reality was that most things were still cheaper to make using traditional manufacturing methods.

Stratasys Stock Price

Household 3D printing technology was (and is) extremely precise and easy to use. Free software programs for 3D printers are available for hobbyists to create with. But the real value proposition today is not for's for businesses.

2. Why is AM Important?

The Trade Wars and the COVID19 Recession are both catalysts for AM technology adoption. Both highlighted the value of simplified supply chains and quicker time to market. For example, the company Materialise was able to design and manufacture face masks, handless door handles, face shields, and ventilators within one week of the COVID19 lockdown. Another company Stratasys ramped up production of millions of nasal swabs within a month. Both companies were able to do this because modern 3D printers allow designs to be printed without any of the more costly and time consuming steps required with traditional manufacturing such as creating molds.

Businesses have been hesitant to adopt 3D Printers for many manufacturing processes because at large scale traditional methods are still long as everything runs smoothly. The problem facing manufacturers today is that they are realizing that shocks to their supply chains can devastate their production process.

Rocket manufacturing is one example that illustrates the speed and reduced complexity of AD. As you can see in the case study below...3D printing of one Terran Rocket allowed a 99% reduction in parts, 90% reduction in time to build, a simplified supply chain, and the ability to use computer software and AI to enhance future production quality and efficiency. 

AM has matured a lot since the 1980s. What was once mostly for hobbyists is now being used at scale to produce all sorts of goods. For example, nearly all hearing aids are made using 3D printers. Hearing aides are a great example because they are tailor made to each individual, require precise measurements, benefit from being lighter and stronger, and embed high-tech electrical devices. These qualities have been driving adoption of AM applications. Simplifying supply chains and reducing time to market were always there before, but Trade Wars and pandemics are magnifying their importance.

Adoption of technologies tend to improve the rate at which technologies improve. This is because scale lowers cost and investment leads to greater efficiencies. As a result, the speed at which AM begins to take market share from traditional manufacturing could start to accelerate.

AM also opens up entirely new types of goods. 3D Printers can create objects that have characteristics superior to existing molded materials. For example, 3D Printers can be used to create carbon fiber bike frames. The strongest carbon fibers are ten times stronger than steel and eight times that of aluminum, not to mention much lighter than both materials, 5 and 1.5 times respectively. Before 3D printers, applications of carbon fiber technology were cost prohibitive. Today, products like high performance 3D printed carbon fiber bike frames are cost competitive.

AM should speed the growth of new kinds of manufactured goods because they lower barriers to entry. 3D Printers are a game changer for small businesses that lack money for big factories. We have used some of the 3D printing software and can share from our experience that it is not very complicated. Software features allow a drag and drop interface that even children (like us) can quickly build objects from our imagination and send to printers for production.

3D prints are now widely available for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands for industrial grade. Printers can use dozens of metals, plastics, and even fiber glass for connecting electrical devices within objects, something that is nearly impossible to do cheaply using traditional methods.

The result of these realities is a recipe for mass adoption of AM and 3D printing technology. We explain why in the remainder of this article.

3. What is Traditional Manufacturing?

Before we dive into 3D printing technology it's important to build an understanding of the traditional manufacturing processes that are being disrupted. These traditional processes are also referred to as “Subtractive” because they remove material to create outputs. Two of the more common methods used today for mass production include “Injection Molding” and CNC Machining”. 

Injection molding is a manufacturing process that uses molds in which liquid plastics or other materials are injected before cooled. Many commonly used goods are made using injection molding such as plastic trinkets and toys to automotive body parts, cell phone cases, water bottles, and containers. Essentially many of the plastic parts that we use in every-day life are injection molded. 

CNC Machining is short for “computer numerical control,” which is in contrast to manual control manufacturing. CNC uses pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery. The process can be used to control a range of complex machinery, from grinders and lathes to mills and routers. With CNC machining, three-dimensional cutting tasks can be accomplished far easier than by human manual cutting. 

These processes have proved cost effective at scale, but often result in wasted materials because they are “subtractive” in nature as opposed to AM which uses up nearly all it needs. They also require heavy investment up front which makes them impractical for smaller scale uses, or anything requiring even small changes in design. 

That’s why engineers started experimenting with the idea of a new form of manufacturing...which we call “Additive Manufacturing” using 3D Printers.

4. Why are Businesses Interested in AM?

Businesses will adopt AM when they feel it adds to their bottom line, and that depends on the cost / benefit of each application. Here are some key considerations that businesses are thinking about.


By printing 3D objects, we no longer need to weld things together. A variety of different shapes and structures can be made with 3D printing that cannot be made any other way.

In 2019, a show in Detroit showed for the first time a 3D printed part was cheaper than a traditionally made part.

3D printing also shows to be very helpful in aero space where parts can be printed all in one piece, not needing to be welded together, risking for things falling apart, or not setting into place correctly. But with 3D printing you can guarantee that your design will be replicated perfectly. 

Also you can reproduce different parts of certain objects easily without having to buy an entire new product.


Not all materials can be used in 3D printers, some are only for plastic and some are only for metal. So businesses with multiple materials needing to be printed, may require multiple 3D printers.

Sometimes 3D printers can be a little hard to scale. 

Some metal additive manufacturers leave behind a kind of dusts after working with the metal. This dust needs to be cleaned out of the 3D printers, and that can be very time consuming and may be hazardous.

The item has to pass through many regulations for it to go to shops and the public.

5. Who are the leaders in Additive Manufacturing?

There are broadly two groups of industry leaders: 3D Printer Manufacturers and 3D Printing design and consulting. Here are four publicly traded companies that get a significant amount of revenue from the AM industry...

Materialise was created by Wilfried Vancraen in 1990 and remains the CEO to this day. He is considered by many to be a founding father of the industry and has attempted to put his company at the center of what he believes to be an industry on the brink of escape velocity. Materialise provides 3D printing software and 3D printing services. They sell different designs for all sorts of things the public may want or need. They also print products and sell them. Sales can be mass produced or individual parts of something clients need for replacement when existing parts break. Printing parts allows clients to save money by buying individual pieces instead of the entire product.

Proto Labs supplies solutions for both traditional manufacturing and AM. Since their founding in 1999 the Minnesota-based company has provided products and services to help customize and mass produce plastic and metal prototypes and parts for companies in the United States, Europe, and Japan. They have a reputation for providing fast and reliable manufacturing solutions across the full spectrum of manufacturing problems, not just those best suited for 3D printing.

Stratasys is a company that primarily manufactures 3D printers along with a little design and consulting work. Stratasys has many different materials that can be put in to be printed, which is why it is one of the leading companies in 3D printing. They were quick to respond to the COVID19 pandemic, printing millions of nasal swaps using their leading printers.

3D Systems Corporation supplies a wide range of 3D printers, on demand parts, software solutions, and consulting support. 3D Systems is the oldest of the pure play AM companies we reviewed. It was created in 1983, co-founded by the inventor of 3D printing, Charles (“Chuck”) Hull. 3D Systems has grown into a global 3D solutions company and has focused on connecting its customers with the expertise and digital manufacturing workflow required to solve their business, design or engineering problems.

There are many other companies in the 3D Printing industry. For example, General Electric provides a suite of printers and materials. Dozens of private companies are sprouting up as well.

6. What is AM used for today?

Three big areas have already widely adopted or are adopting 3D printing technology. They include healthcare solutions, jewelry, and aerospace.

Healthcare solutions that require tailoring to individual patients are already using 3D printing. Two big applications include hearing aids and hip replacements.

Virtual Surgical Planning technology helps provide personalized surgery, combining expertise in medical imaging, surgical simulation, and 3D printing. Surgeons work with 3D Systems biomedical engineers to simulate and plan the surgical procedure. The outcome is a digital plan that is transferred to the operating room including accurate, 3D-printed, personalized surgical tools, templates, and models.

Medical Devices beyond hearing aids and hip replacements are also being manufactured with 3D printers. Metal implants and instrumentation used for orthopedic, spinal, craniomaxillofacial (CMF), dental, and veterinary applications are common.

Jewelry is great for 3D printing. Since 3D printing isn’t limited by molds there are many intricate designs starting to be created with 3D printers that wouldn’t be able to be created otherwise. Schools and companies using 3D printers don’t have to waste money on shipping and jewelry can be made right inside the shop where customers can watch their product be printed.

Multiple designs can be created in a very short time frame, so instead of redesigning the entire manufacturing process, you just change a few things on the designing software. Materials can be saved as well. Instead of pouring things inside molds, the molds can be completely eliminated. Several steps can be eliminated by using this as well. Setting up and building a factory is all shortened to buying a small machine to set up on some desk.

Aerospace has been using 3D printing because of its precision and ability to combine multiple parts into one.

The proof of 3D printings contribution in aerospace is clear from the data. Aerospace and the defense industries took up 16% of 3D printings at the time 4.9 billion dollar global revenue. And a report from Research and Markets stated a calculated growth rate of 23% from 2017 to 2021 for 3D printing. 

A key benefit is that parts being printed can be printed hollow with supports inside of them. This makes the parts extremely light but also just as strong because of the supports. To put this in perspective, it is said that the weight of the pieces they print drop in weight by 40 - 60%. This will also drop costs on fuel because the thrusters need to push a lot less weight. Also, if the design is wrong with traditional manufacturing, and the calculations are wrong, you have to adjust the entire manufacturing process. But with 3D printing, all you have to do is change the design in the user friendly software, and reprinting it.

There is also a large cost reduction when you don't need to make too many of the same parts because you don’t have to buy an entire factory, buy all of the molds, machines, extra materials, and all of the other things building up the assembly line in the factory. 3D Printing is also faster because of the reduction of steps.

7. What is AM Headed in the Future?

Fashion may be on the verge of giving into this new industry. This is because, with a 3D printer, the fabric of different clothings is made with extreme precision, and people can take their own clothing 3D printer to design their very own clothing.

Biological and Scientific applications are growing. Instead of printing products, scientists and biologists are able to replicate tissues for people lacking healthy one or lacking them in general. Companies are experimenting with 3D printing space food for astronauts going into space. Many professional engineers and scientists are working together to find out different ways we can use 3D printing to transform this sector of research and innovation. The result will probably expand the medical, aerospace, and military applications.

Architecture and Construction is starting to take off. There are many steps to completing a structure that can be simplified with 3D printing. Traditional architecture designs are typically 2D blueprints that architects have to plan out. But with 3D printing you are able to plan on a computer in 3D, and print in 3D. Building can be near perfectly replicated. You can also easily make changes just by changing the design.

The video below shows a 3D printer building a small house for just $4,000!. There are many different companies with huge 3D printers made to build different houses in many times less the time other houses are made. Also, there is nothing to be scrapped after 3D printing a house making it also more environmentally healthy.

Education is also being enhanced with 3D Printers. Schools are starting to teach 3D printing to get children more familiar with making hardware. However, there is some debate if it is really necessary to add this to the regular curriculum. Kids are learning to code and create using software that can speak to the printers. This allows kids to not only design, but physically create and share.

We've already touched on the Healthcare Industry, but the COVID19 Crisis has opened up new opportunities. Within days of the lockdown, companies like Materialise and Stratasys were designing and printing masks, nasal swabs, and even parts for ventilators. These days 3D printing is starting to take off more than ever because we are running out of many materials for the machines in hospitals. Although COVID19 is taking a big toll on the world, it could be a big hit for 3D printing. Hospitals in need of repairs and parts to help their patients stay alive could just print their own parts.

Lawyers and Legal Professions don't first appear to need 3D printers, but they can provide some incredible tools for crime scenes and trying to find out different tracks of evidence left. For example, a 3D printer was able to reconstruct a crime scene for people to analyze. Once they have a mode, they could present it to the judge and jury to show what they suspect happened, and to have exact proof.

Also, for laws that were broken because someone was hurt by someone else, sometimes the bone structure will fall apart once skin is removed. So you can 3D print a skeleton to show the jury the skeletal structure and what you believe happened, and able to provide proof.

3D printing technology can also be used to scan and recreate temporary evidence like footprints before they fade away.

Small scale manufacturers are starting to take off. Customers may be willing to pay a little more for a tailored product. This opens up niche opportunities for small scale manufacturers that don't have the money to buy giant factories to scale and mass-produce. With 3D printers, even the smallest businesses can provide the public with their physical products.

This video shows how one person created their own shoes. The same creator made videos showing how to use simple consumer 3D printers to create many other products as well including a chocolate boat!

Many other products could be taken over by AM technology. Many products may not even exist yet.


Additive Manufacturing (AM) is only going to get better ... meaning that 3D Printers will be able to create ever more stronger, lighter, flexible, and complex products at increasingly cheaper prices. The ability to tailor these products to individuals opens up even more possibilities. What this tells me is that AM will only accelerate its takeover of traditional manufacturing processes.

COVID19 and trade wars have added new reasons for companies to start investing more in AM technology. Complex international supply chains and "just-in-time delivery" dominated cost reduction strategies for the past few decades. But these strategies only reduce costs if they can be relied upon to always deliver. Many are learning the hard way that having many parts shipped in just in time from around the world can be tricky...wouldn't it be easier to just have it all printed right next door?

Thank you for reading about 3D printing everyone!




Disclaimer, this is not investing advice, we are only trying to provide information. We may own shares in the companies mentioned.