The Top 10 Revolutionary 3D Printing Stories of 2023

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Our readers are often intrigued by advances in desktop 3D printing, while simultaneously, the wider additive manufacturing (AM) industry undergoes transformations driven by business realignments. This year has seen numerous news revealing a sector in significant transition, largely deploying 3D printing into mainstream manufacturing. We list down 10 such notable occurrences from 2023.

Media Acquisition

The Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) purchased French online media 3Dnatives in a significant step for AM media, with intentions of strengthening SPE’s expertise in this sector. 3Dnatives, established in 2013 by Marc Pfohl and Alexandre Martel, has grown into a leading AM media platform, providing various services in multiple languages and drawing over 1.2 million visitors monthly. Whilst the terms weren’t disclosed, it’s evident that the acquisition will most likely enhance SPE’s global reach in generating native language content, keeping 3Dnatives’ global offices intact. 3Dnatives also manages events under its “ADDITIV” brand, focused on AM applications in different sectors. This acquisition is a part of a trend in the media, analysis, and events sector.

In addition to 3DR Holdings’ purchase of SmarTech Analysis, Wohlers Associates was acquired by standards body ASTM International, Xometry merged with digital sourcing provider Thomasnet and following this, WTWH Media, known for Design World, EE World Online, and The Robot Report, acquired Engineering.com. This is the fourth acquisition by WTWH Media since its partnership with Mountaingate Capital, a Colorado-based investment firm focused on growth.

Dental 3D Printing Shakeup

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.

Stratasys’s Mergerocolypse

The 3D printing industry experienced a significant upheaval with the battle over its most valuable company, Stratasys. This began when Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS) announced its intent to merge with Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM), triggering interest from other companies like 3D Systems and Nano Dimension (Nasdaq: NNDM). Nano Dimension, having accumulated over $1 billion in cash, aggressively sought control of Stratasys, leading to legal battles and protective measures such as a “poison pill.” Desktop Metal aimed to merge with Stratasys to expand its technology portfolio. Meanwhile, 3D Systems, a long-standing competitor of Stratasys, proposed its own bid for the company. The situation was underscored by various legal and financial maneuvers from different stakeholders, reflecting the strategic importance of Stratasys in the 3D printing market.

With AM analysts like me wagering over how the drama might play out, the saga ended in a non-deal. Stratasys terminated its planned merger with Desktop Metal, despite approval from Desktop Metal’s shareholders. Stratasys shareholders overwhelmingly voted against the deal, leading to a reassessment of strategic options, including potential mergers, business combinations, or the sale of the company. I’m not afraid to admit that I was wrong in covering the story and sure felt confident at the time that I was making my guesses.

Benny Buller Resigns 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.

During times of economical uncertainty, private equity has demonstrated its pivotal position in the 3D printing industry, primarily in AM service bureau consolidation. This trend came into the limelight when CORE Industrial Partners bought FATHOM in 2019, initiating a roll-up strategy and later making it public. Since then, several other private equity firms have followed suit. Similar strategies involve AIP’s purchase of ADDMAN, Trilantic North America’s contribution in guiding Quickparts, Crestview Partners supporting SyBrige Technologies, L Squared Capital’s alliance with ERA industries, and MiddleGround’s strategy with purchasing a CNC shop in Canada. Moreover, CORE launched UPTIVE using a different approach. However, FATHOM has faced severe financial difficulties, leading CORE to think about going private. The rising influence of private equity investment in this sector, which grew by 52% in 2022, showcases the potential value of the AM industry. These firms are not just amalgamating pre-existing capabilities but also venturing into new AM platforms, with the aim of developing comprehensive manufacturing platforms.

Relativity Space’s Partially Successful 3D Printed Rocket Launch

On March 22, 2023, Relativity Space was successful in partially launching the world’s first 3D printed rocket, named the Terran 1. Despite the failure of two previous attempts, the rocket, composed of 85% 3D printed components, was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This was made possible after a seven-year-long development journey by Relativity Space, a company set up by Blue Origin alumni. Though the rocket couldn’t reach the orbit due to a second-stage anomaly, it still marked a significant advancement in the AM industry, particularly in space applications. However, this failure to ignite was seen as a holistic failure by some, viewing it as a potential setback for the adoption of 3D printing technology in the space sector. As a result, the decision to discontinue the smaller Terran 1 was made to focus on the development of the Terran R, which is a more advanced, reusable, medium-to-heavy lift launch vehicle.

Chinese Metal 3D Printers Move West

In 2023, many Chinese manufacturers of metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) 3D printers started to expand into Western markets. This expansion began years ago with the establishment of sites in the U.S. and Germany by Farsoon and EPlus3D. More companies, such as Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) and HBD3D, have since announced their presence at major trade shows outside of Asia, like RAPID + TCT and formnext. Furthermore, the Laser Wars taking place in the LPBF segment have reached new heights with the participation of Farsoon, EPlus3D, and BLT. As Nikon SLM Solutions made considerable advancements with its 12-laser NXG XII 3D printer, these Chinese firms have increased the number of lasers to 26 and are still going.

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

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

General Motors (GM) strategically acquired Tooling & Equipment International (TEI), a key provider of gigacasting technology used by Tesla. Gigacasting, a process developed by Tesla, involves casting large automotive parts, like vehicle underbodies, in a single piece using large “Giga Presses.” This method, crucially reliant on 3D printed sand molds provided by TEI, aims to streamline vehicle manufacturing by reducing the number of parts and joints, thereby enhancing efficiency, safety, and structural integrity. Other automotive giants like BMW and Toyota are also utilizing this technology for various components, indicating a trend towards gigacasting as a key manufacturing strategy in the EV sector. This development highlights the growing importance of large-scale sand 3D printing in automotive manufacturing.

Apple to Use Metal 3D Printing for Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Inc., the world’s largest tech company, is experimenting with binder jet 3D printing to fabricate steel chassis for its future smartwatches. The exact source of Apple’s binder jet technology remains speculative. Possible suppliers 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 version of the Apple Watch Ultra is anticipated to incorporate mechanical titanium components created using LPBF, as revealed by analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. The preference of Apple to utilize Chinese platforms, especially from corporations like Farsoon and BLT, is of particular note in the light of the continuous trend towards divesting manufacturing operations from China.

Endorsement of Advanced Manufacturing by Biden

In the course of 2023, the Biden administration upped the ante in its advocacy for advanced manufacturing, heralding a range of significant investments and undertakings to fuel the US advanced manufacturing industry. Noteworthy achievements encompass the creation of the White House Council on Supply Chain Resilience, substantial funding for battery and semiconductor production, and the debut of AM Forward Florida, a test project of the nationwide AM Forward initiative.

The objective of these activities is to boost local manufacturing of key technologies, including advanced batteries, semiconductors, and 3D printed parts for aerospace and defense-related purposes. The government’s concentration is on fortifying the US defense industrial base, encouraging reshoring, and speeding up the incorporation of AM technologies to ensure a more resistant and creative manufacturing sector. This strategic propulsion is in line with national security objectives, and strives to invigorate economic growth, raise employment rates, and uphold technological supremacy in the global market.

Chuck Hull receives National Medal of Technology and Innovation 2023 from President Biden.

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.

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