After 15 years in the 3D printing business, our team at EnvisionTEC has seen a lot of trends come and go, and we’re excited about what we see on the horizon.
While we can’t disclose much of our behind-the-scenes work with customers, we continue to see manufacturers moving quickly toward mass customized production — for medical, consumer and sporting goods — as well as real short-run production with 3D printers.
This long-talked-about shift is finally being driven by the availability of high-speed 3D printers and functional new materials that make direct printing of end-use parts that compete with injection molded pieces a reality.
While the hearing aid market has been 3D printing custom products in large volumes for more than a decade, the dental market will clearly be the next wholesale industry to go fully digital with its production.
In 2017, digital dentistry reached another major milestone, with the 3D printing market’s first full denture solution. EnvisionTEC’s FDA-approved material for replicating pink gums (E-Denture) and teeth (E-Dent) was an industry first that will pave the way to more affordable, better fitting denture solutions.
This year, we believe an even bigger development is coming.
EnvisionTEC is one of many 3D printer manufacturers who have been racing to provide the dental market’s first 3D printed orthodontic aligners (not to be confused with aligners thermoformed on 3D printed models). The challenge is real to deliver a material that can directly print aligners with the proper biocompatibility, stability, flexion and strength.
At EnvisionTEC, where we have the broadest material portfolio in digital dentistry, including seven FDA- and CE-approved materials, we feel confident that 2018 will be the year of the 3D printed aligner. Continuous high-speed 3D printers such as the Vida cDLM are further enabling this development because, in addition to being super-fast, they deliver isotropic properties that give final parts even more strength.
Yet dentistry is just one example of the new digital production that 3D printing has unleashed. We see a market coming on fast for custom 3D printed earbuds, eyeglasses and sporting goods, where personalized grips and fits make good competitive business sense.
We see both mainstream manufacturers and independent entrepreneurs increasingly looking to 3D printing to carve out a competitive niche with custom or low-volume products. This is especially true as the 3D printing industry on whole continues to deliver incremental growth, with better machines, more functional materials and application-specific software.
For 2018, the EnvisionTEC team also sees a downturn coming in what appears to be an every-few-years hype cycle in low-cost, low-quality 3D printers. Much like the hype around MakerBot climbed for half a decade before trailing off, we’re starting to see a slowdown in the recent wave toward cheap 3D printers.
While some of these low-cost 3D printer companies may survive long term as they try to enter a more premium end of the 3D market, where the requirements for high accuracy, repeatability and sophisticated materials are paramount, we believe the next year will see a shakeout of many of these companies.
We know this is happening from experience. When cheap printers don’t produce quality parts consistently for more than a few months, the users aren’t giving up on 3D printing. They are simply switching manufacturers, moving to more premium products.
Al Siblani is the CEO of EnvisionTEC