Exploring the Top 10 Groundbreaking 3D Printing Stories from 2023


Our readers have been consistently captivated by the progressive changes in the 3D printing industry. However, the larger additive manufacturing (AM) world is experiencing constant evolution and reform by businesses. This year brought countless pioneering announcements that portrayed a rapidly changing sector. The transformation largely mirrors the growing integration of 3D printing technology within the mainstream manufacturing industry. Let’s explore 10 such significant industry revelations from 2023.

Media Acquisition

The Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) purchased the French online media platform, 3Dnatives. This monumental acquisition signifies a major stepping stone in AM media, intending to broaden SPE’s expertise in the domain. Established in 2013 by Marc Pfohl and Alexandre Martel, 3Dnatives has catapulted itself into a leading media network in the AM realm, providing diverse services in multiple languages and attracting over 1.2 million monthly visitors. While the terms of this acquisition were not disclosed, it retains the global offices of 3Dnatives and is likely to elevate SPE’s global influence and native language content production. Events under its “ADDITIV” brand focusing on AM applications across various sectors are also produced by 3Dnatives.

This acquisition signifies continued activity within media, analysis, and event organization. Along with 3DR Holdings’ purchase of SmarTech Analysis; Wohlers Associates was acquired by the standards organization, ASTM International; and Xometry acquired digital marketing sourcing provider, Thomasnet. More recently, WTWH Media, renowned for Design World, EE World Online, and The Robot Report, purchased Engineering.com. This signifies the fourth strategic acquisition for WTWH Media since its partnership with Mountaingate Capital, a growth-focused investment firm based in Colorado.

Dental 3D Printing Revolution

3D printed dental aligners. Image courtesy of SprintRay.

Align Technology acquired polymer 3D printing company Cubicure GmbH for approximately €79 million. This strategic move enhances Align’s capabilities in direct 3D printing, supporting its growth in the dental 3D printing market, which accounts for a third of the AM sector. Cubicure’s Hot Lithography technology, crucial for the next phase of dental 3D printing, allows for the processing of highly viscous resins to produce durable and temperature-resistant polymers.

This acquisition enables Align to potentially shift from thermoforming aligners on 3D printed models (made using 3D Systems’ stereolithography machines) to direct 3D printing of dental aligners. The acquisition, part of Align’s long-term growth strategy, also prepares it for increased competition and industry shifts, considering the challenges faced by Align, such as declining shipments and revenues in a fluctuating market. News of the purchase impacted 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD) investors, who worried that the dental giant was moving away from the printer manufacturer, thus impacting a significant portion of 3D Systems’ revenues.

In contrast, SmileDirectClub, a direct-to-consumer aligner manufacturer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Texas due to challenging financial circumstances. Despite initial growth and a significant presence in the 3D printing space through a partnership with HP (NYSE: HPQ), SmileDirectClub faced a steep decline in revenues, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a $63 million legal judgment against them from Align. The company attempted to stabilize through recapitalization and introducing new products, but accumulating debts and the inability to secure third-party financing led to the bankruptcy filing. In December 2023, SmileDirectClub announced the closure of its operations, which could lead to some 60 HP polymer 3D printers flooding the market at a discount.

Mergerocalpyse of Stratasys

The industry of 3D printing went through a major turmoil with the contest over its most prized company, Stratasys. This began when Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS) expressed its intention to blend with Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM), which sparked intrigue from other firms like 3D Systems and Nano Dimension (Nasdaq: NNDM). Having accumulated more than $1 billion in cash, Nano Dimension actively pursued control over Stratasys, leading to legal disputes and protective measures such as a “poison pill”. Intending to merge with Stratasys to broaden its technology portfolio, Desktop Metal took active steps. 3D Systems, an old adversary of Stratasys, made its own bid for the company. This situation was marked by various legal and financial tactics from distinct stakeholders, showing the pivotal importance of Stratasys in the 3D printing market.

The whole drama, closely watched and speculated by AM analysts like me, ended in a non-deal. Stratasys called off its intended merger with Desktop Metal, in spite of the consent from Desktop Metal’s shareholders. The deal was overwhelmingly rejected by the shareholders of Stratasys, leading to a reassessment of strategic alternatives that included probable mergers, business combinations, or sale of the company. I won’t shy away from admitting that I was off the mark in my coverage of the saga and must admit to feeling confident at that time while making my predictions.

Resignation of Benny Buller from Velo3D

Velo3D CEO Benny Buller giving the opening keynote at Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2023.

In December, metal 3D printing firm Velo3D (NYSE: VLD) announced the resignation of its CEO and founder, Benny Buller, following a decision by the Board of Directors amid a challenging economic climate for the industry. This change occured as the company experienced significant financial growth but also substantial operational losses, necessitating a strategic review of options including a possible sale, merger, or other business combinations. The board appointed Brad Kreger as Interim CEO, who brings extensive experience in scaling manufacturing operations. Velo3D’s situation is reflective of broader sectoral trends, where other companies are also undergoing leadership changes and exploring strategic transactions. With its critical role in the new space industry and amid growing competition, particularly from Chinese manufacturers, Velo3D’s future steps are being closely watched.

More Private Equity Service Bureau Roll-ups

Fathom rang the opening bell of the NYSE on April 19, 2022. Image courtesy of Fathom via LinkedIn.

Private equity continues to be a key player in the 3D printing industry amid economic uncertainties, particularly in the consolidation of AM service bureaus. This trend was first noticed when CORE Industrial Partners acquired FATHOM in 2019, kick-starting a roll-up strategy prior to making it public. Other private equity firms have since replicated this tactic, for example: AIP’s acquisition of ADDMAN, Trilantic North America’s role in steering Quickparts, the backing of SyBrige Technologies by Crestview Partners, L Squared Capital’s move with ERA Industries, and MiddleGround’s strategy involving the purchase of a CNC shop in Canada. Additionally, CORE established UPTIVE employing a different roll-up process. It is noteworthy that FATHOM has faced financial difficulties, leading CORE to think of privatising it. There has been a 52% increase in private equity investments in the AM sector since 2022, reflecting the growing confidence in the industry’s future potential. These firms are not only amalgamating existing capabilities, but also venturing into new AM platforms and industries to develop comprehensive manufacturing platforms.

Relativity Space’s Not-Quite-Successful 3D Printed Rocket Launch

Relativity Space partially succeeded in launching the world’s first 3D printed rocket, Terran 1, on March 22, 2023. It was a major accomplishment despite two prior unsuccessful attempts. This 110-feet tall rocket is composed of 85% 3D printed components and was launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The company Relativity Space, started by alumni from Blue Origin, spent seven years developing this product. Although the rocket could not achieve orbit due to an issue in the second stage, it signified a significant leap for the AM industry, especially in terms of space applications. However, some perceived this failure to ignite as an overall setback to the potential use of 3D printing in the space sector. The inability to reach orbit subsequently led to the decision to halt the production of the smaller Terran 1 and focus on developing the Terran R – a more advanced, reusable medium-to-heavy lift launch vehicle.

Chinese Metal 3D Printers Move West

2023 also saw numerous manufacturers of metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) 3D printers from China expand into Western markets. While this trend had already begun in previous years with the establishment of sites in the U.S. and Germany by Farsoon and EPlus3D, additional companies, including Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) and HBD3D, made their presence known at all of the major trade shows outside of Asia, such as RAPID + TCT and formnext. Moreover, Farsoon, EPlus3D, and BLT all took the Laser Wars taking place in the LPBF segment to new levels. As Nikon SLM Solutions has made significant progress with its 12-laser NXG XII 3D printer, these Chinese firms have upped the number of lasers up to 26 and counting.

GM Buys Tesla’s Sand 3D Printing Provider for Gigacasting

3D printed sand cores built for BMW using voxeljet technology.

General Motors (GM) strategically acquired Tooling & Equipment International (TEI), a major supplier of the gigacasting technology that Tesla uses. Gigacasting, a technique invented by Tesla, consists of casting large auto parts, like vehicle underbodies, in one piece using large “Giga Presses.” This approach heavily relies on 3D printed sand molds supplied by TEI, and it aims to simplify vehicle manufacture by decreasing the number of parts and joints, thus improving efficiency, safety, and structural integrity. Other auto giants, including BMW and Toyota, are also employing this technology for various components, suggesting that gigacasting is becoming a crucial manufacturing tactic in the EV industry. This advancement underscores the mounting significance of large-scale sand 3D printing in auto manufacturing.

Apple to Rely on Metal 3D Printing for Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Inc., the tech industry’s leading company, is experimenting with binder jet 3D printing to produce steel chassis for its future smartwatches. The exact origin of Apple’s binder jet technology remains uncertain. Prospective suppliers could include Desktop Metal, Markforged, GE, EasyMFG in China, or HP’s Metal Jet S100 platform, considering Berkshire Hathaway’s investments in both Apple and HP.

The forthcoming Apple Watch Ultra edition is anticipated to incorporate mechanically crafted titanium components created via LPBF, as predicted by the analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Notably, their utilization of Chinese platforms for this, primarily from companies like Farsoon and BLT, is a significant development given the prevalent trend of diversifying manufacturing processes away from China.

Advanced Manufacturing Receives Support from Biden

In 2023, the Biden Administration amplified its backing for cutting-edge manufacturing, declaring a flurry of significant investments and initiatives to augment the U.S. advanced manufacturing field. Notable points of interest include the inception of the White House Council on Supply Chain Resilience, substantial financing for battery and semiconductor creation, and the kickstart of AM Forward Florida, a preliminary scheme within the national AM Forward enterprise.

These involvements strive to boost the national output of crucial technologies like advanced batteries, semiconductors, and 3D printed components for aerospace and defense uses. The government is channeling its focus towards solidifying the U.S. defense industrial groundwork, fostering reshoring, and expediting the acceptance of AM technologies to ensure a more flexible and innovative manufacturing industry. This strategic impulse coincides with national security ambitions and seeks to nurture economic expansion, job generation, and technology command in the international market.

Chuck Hull receives National Medal of Technology and Innovation 2023 from President Biden. Image courtesy of C-SPAN.

Even when AM wasn’t explicitly mentioned in relation to some of these initiatives—though it frequently was—3D printing almost acted as the backdrop for them. As discussed in Additive Manufacturing Research’s first ever intelligence report on the 3D printing market for defense, “Additive Manufacturing for Military and Defense,” the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) was estimated to spend a total of $300 million directly on AM in 2023. Moreover, this spending is expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2032. Perhaps signifying the overall trend, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation was awarded to 3D printing inventor Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, by President Biden in October of this year.

Original source


“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”

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