Earlier this year Wohlers Associates, Inc. published their annual report with current figures for the additive manufacturing industry. The report showed a surprising expansion of 7.50%, upwards of $12.80 billion in 2020, despite the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Growth was way down in previous years, but with many other industries struggling to survive and revive from global lockdowns, the trend still looks positive. The report also indicated growth in diversity of application in areas that could have such dramatic benefits for humankind. Why then is there a neo-Luddite movement that is so against this new technology? Should we be taking that step back we all need to do sometimes and question where these developments are taking us or just embrace these astounding technologies?

As the industrial revolution in Great Britain marched on in the early 19th century, workers in the textile manufacturing industries became alarmed as machinery threatened their jobs. Fears that machines would make them redundant led workers to form a secret oath-based organization dedicated to stopping this advance of industrialization. The society, known as the Luddites, smashed up machinery, caused disturbances and even physically attacked factory owners to hold back the inevitable progress.

Shortsighted they may have been, their methods unacceptable, but the worker’s fears were real. There were no trade unions or social security benefits to assist them if they were to become unemployed. They and their families could face destitution. The sad fact is though that they were playing King Canute who in legend tried to hold back the waves. The industrial age rushed on regardless. Even so, their stance in time led to social changes and the revolution they feared brought benefits to their children and grandchildren.

With the rapid advancements in this technological age, there are obvious parallels. Additive manufacturing may threaten the employment of many workers but the potential benefits are enormous. The neo-Luddites might try to halt the progression but are unlikely to stop it, although echoing the pattern of the earlier industrial age, they may help balance the disadvantages.

Additive manufacturing is now thought of as almost synonymous with 3-D printing, a technological advancement that utilizes digital processes to create and recreate lighter, stronger parts and systems. 3-D scanners that use computer-aided design (CAD) software are being refined constantly to produce complex geometric shapes using a layer-by-layer technique that builds up material into the desired object. The benefits are manifold and the technique is now being employed in many industries. Multiple parts can be created rapidly and accurately without the need for a large physical workforce. Here is the point of argument for Luddism.

For investors, AM is on an upward trajectory at the moment following the general trend in manufacturing of smaller companies gaining traction over long-establish market giants. Wohlers particularly highlights applications in the food industry, electronics and the medical field. This latter category is perhaps the area that may convince neo-Luddites that these technological changes do not conflict so strongly with their own philosophies. These are applications of this new technology that has very clear benefits.

Whatever premise we start from, all we’re concerned about are longevity and quality of life. AM and 3-D printing have made significant advances in the health sector that have created a positive impact in those two areas of anxiety. Education and surgical planning from diagnosis to treatment using living tissues created by the technique are areas most heavily investing in 3-D this year. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for these new technologies with an almost overwhelming demand for medical equipment. AM has been able to speed up the supply as other companies have used the technique to satisfy the increase in orders for personal protective equipment.

Research and development using AM has limited, and will ultimately end, animal testing. The challenge to create organs without donors is ongoing and the technology is used in cancer research and treating epilepsy. Cranial reconstruction and joint replacements can be achieved far more rapidly with this new method. Commercially affordable prosthetics and implants are making a positive impact on poorer societies and individuals. The benefits are adding up and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It is surely hard for anyone to ignore them.

3-D printing is revolutionizing education, the preservation of cultural heritage, fashion and transportation industries, dentistry and food. In the automotive industry parts are being manufactured at a remarkable speed and in Formula 1 racing replacing something like a wing takes only 10 days instead of 5 weeks. AM is capable of producing lightweight strong parts for aerospace that now include parts for commercial jet engines. The tide of these technological advances cannot be stemmed.

Neo-Luddism converges with green philosophies today in rejecting most modern technologies. The gap has a bridge crossed by sustainability, an area of great concern for environmentalists. Manufacturing processes, unchanged for an era, are being revolutionized by additive 3-D methods leading to more efficiency and fewer materials equaling less waste. Being able to produce parts where needed instead of factories miles away means reduced transport costs and carbon emissions. Lower costs enable poorer sections of society to benefit from advances in healthcare, education and food manufacturing.

It may be possible and wise to take that step back and review where technology is taking us but as the world emerges from the pandemic these innovations are coming as a tidal bore that nothing is likely to stop. There are problems and glitches to be worked through and it is in those areas that the most significant trends will be found in the rest of 2021 and beyond. AMFG, a company aimed at providing additive manufacturing solutions, outline a number of ongoing developments that will press AM into the next phase. Software must update and adapt more effectively to the needs of these new technologies plus both software and hardware will have to integrate and connect more positively with the production floor. The greater use of AI technologies at all stages of AM is also a major trend for 2021.

Additive manufacturing allows greater freedom of design by creating layer-on-layer and encourages innovation. The pandemic raised awareness of the benefits of AM in sustainability, diversity and accuracy of production with improved distribution times and reduced costs. A 2020 survey of US manufacturing engineers across 7 top industries ranked AM highly for investment following the pandemic. That time has been slow in coming but as 2021 progresses AM technology continues to overtake traditional manufacturing processes. Concerns for job losses in time may be compensated by more demand for new technology skills and innovators. Environmental warriors may need to change tack against this new age and embrace 3-D printing for its benefits to green issues and sustainability. Neo-Luddism may give way to the layer-on-layer revolution.