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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Additive manufacturing (3D printing)

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: Innovation report
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2014 till 2017

Subject and objective of the project

With additive manufacturing (AM) technologies or »3D printing«, as the technologies are often referred to in everyday language, the requested component is built up by successively applying the source material layer by layer based on a digital 3D model. This process enables the manufacturing of geometrically highly complex products which could not be realised by means of conventional manufacturing processes at all or only with great effort.

In industry, AM technologies are firmly established for the manufacturing of prototypes and highly specialised tools or moulds for more than 25 years already. Furthermore, for almost ten years now, technological progress increasingly enables the additive manufacturing of high-quality final products, thus significantly broadening the range of industrial applications and opening up new options for customised series production. In parallel, 3D printers have been developed which are technically simple indeed, but affordable for private users as well. They are becoming more and more popular even among users who are less technophilic.

In the public and in the media, industrial AM technologies and 3D printers are particularly fascinating, because they generally nourish the utopia of a universal machine by means of which anyone can manufacture material objects at will. This is why the ideas regarding the performance, potential applications and impacts of AM technologies are manifold and often highly exaggerated. For this reason, the primary objective of the TAB project was to offer some orientation by means of a systematic and scientifically well-founded presentation and evaluation of the developments made in this field in order to – on the one hand – provide a realistic assessment of the potentials involved and to point out possible ways of how they could possibly be used in a better way as well as – on the other hand – to allow for a differentiated view of possible social impacts of this technology.

Key results

AM technologies for the manufacturing of final products have manifold application potentials in various industries such as mechanical and plant engineering, automation engineering, aerospace, automotive, electronics, medicine, architecture and civil engineering, arts, design, clothing and sporting goods, toys, food and, last but not least, even military engineering and arms technology. However, both in Germany and worldwide, most industries are still at the very beginning of tapping the manifold application potentials of additive manufacturing. Currently, there is only a handful of pioneering industries where additive products have already gained a relevant market share (i. a. the dental and hearing aid industries). For the future, a significant increase in the importance of AM technologies is expected e. g. in sectors such as aerospace industry (dealing with the manufacturing of geometrically complex lightweight components) or medical engineering (focusing on the manufacturing of individual implants).

Currently, there are still various technical challenges to be met with regard to a routine use of AM technologies in industrial production, particularly for larger series. Especially for the manufacturing of larger components, the still rather low build-up rates significantly limit the range of potential applications. Another disadvantage is that there are upstream and downstream production steps most of which still have to be carried out manually today. Finally, there are still considerable gaps of knowledge with regard to the mechanical properties of components produced which, as a result, calls for complex quality checks. This is why today the potentials of AM technologies are considered particularly for highly specialised applications in the production of individual components or small series.

By international comparison, Germany’s strength lies in the development respectively production of procedures, materials and systems for AM, particularly in the metal sector. As a substantial discrepancy to this, however, an obvious weakness on the user side can be observed – particularly compared with the USA. Due to this, emerging and possibly disruptive application potentials of AM technologies might be recognized and tapped too late in Germany. This is why the major challenge for the years to come is to broaden the industrial user base in Germany.

Overcoming non-technical barriers that often impede the introduction of AM technologies represents a key factor in this respect – particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). There is often a lack of decision-relevant information, as industry and technology standards for AM technologies still need to be developed. In connection with the variety of procedures, many SMEs have difficulties identifying application potentials, new business models and the appropriate technology to get started in this field. Moreover, they have to face challenges with regard to tapping the technical know-how, because the required competencies and qualifications are often not available to a sufficient degree.

Possible consequences and risks of AM technologies have hardly been scientifically examined so far. Though, manifold and – depending on the industry – considerable economic and social impacts are assumed for a widespread use of AM technologies in industrial production (and possibly of 3D printers at home): In the markets concerned, tool-free and widely virtual AM technologies might involve changes of the existing structures regarding production, value creation and logistics. New actors (e. g. start-up companies, technologically less advanced countries) might benefit from a comparably easy access to AM technologies which might result in new constellations of actors and possibly in relocations of production. As it is the case for any technological progress resulting in improved production efficiency, impacts on the type and number of employees are to be expected for AM technologies as well. In order to optimally interlink the innovation process with society’s needs, research on economic and social issues associated with additive manufacturing should be vigorously pursued as well.