3D printing is set to change the way we make everything – from residential homes to artificial bone implants. No longer reserved for prototypes and models, 3D printing – technically known as additive manufacturing – is now precise enough for dentistry, durable enough for car parts, and on course to disrupt the entire manufacturing industry.
In America, where dentists are turning to digital technology to provide better services for patients, refrigerator-sized machines created by Israeli startup Nexa3D print dental retainers, night guards and other accessories that used to require multiple molds of patients’ teeth and hours of lab work. The new method is faster and often results in better-fitting products.
Nexa3D’s NXE400 ultra-fast printer increases productivity by 20 times compared to competitors and is set to transform 3D printing from a tool for prototype designers to a fully fledged industrial machine operating at production scale. The step change promises to transform the 3D printing industry in the same way broadband internet replaced dial-up.
Dentistry is just a small part of Nexa3D’s business, which spans carmakers, entertainment and industry. In a matter of hours, Nexa3D’s printers in factories around the world, aided by innovative software, transform soft resin into car parts, protective face shields, drones and countless other objects.
When BMW opened its Additive Manufacturing Campus in June 2020, a NXE400 was prominently on display.
“Additive manufacturing is already an integral part of our worldwide production system today, and established in our digitalisation strategy,” said BMW’s Milan Nedeljković. “In the future, new technologies of this kind will shorten production times even further and allow us to benefit even more fully from the potential of toolless manufacturing.”
The sector is becoming a hot target for investors. Desktop Metal, which specializes in 3D printing of metal and composite parts, went public via a $2.5 billion SPAC in December and is now valued at more than $5 billion. Two more companies, 3D Hubs and EnvisionTEC, were acquired in January 2021.
Nexa3D CEO and founder Avi Reichental is an industry pioneer, a TED star with eight million views and an X-Prize board member. As CEO of 3D Systems, Reichental guided the company to a $7 billion valuation. Little wonder that he has attracted investment giants like Saudi Aramco Ventures and GE Ventures to back his new company, alongside Jerusalem’s OurCrowd.
“We are breaking the traditional productivity, performance and speed barriers,” Reichental says.
Nexa3D has clients ranging from carmakers like BMW and Subaru to laser printing company Lexmark to Motorola. It recently announced a partnership with Keystone Industries, a leading manufacturer of dental lab materials.
3D printers turn digital models into products, building the objects, layer by layer, out of soft or liquid materials, ranging from metals to plastics, or by using lasers to bind and fuse materials. The process eliminates the need for molds used in traditional manufacturing and cuts back on assembly time by printing complex parts as single units.
Some of the world’s biggest manufacturing companies are using Nexa3D’s machines.
“Our goal is to industrialise 3D printing methods more and more for automotive production, and to implement new automation concepts in the process chain,” said Daniel Schäfer, senior vice president for Production Integration and Pilot Plant at the BMW Group. “This will allow us to streamline component manufacturing for series production and speed up development.”
German manufacturing giant Siemens signed a partnership deal with Nexa3D in September, and will soon begin integrating the printers into its factories.
“We are very pleased to join forces with Nexa3D and together unleash the power and potential of our products to create more resilient and sustainable supply chains,” said Tim Bell, head of Additive Manufacturing at Siemens.
Nexa3D also partners with BASF, Henkel, DSM and other material manufacturing companies to make innovative polymers designed for the fast speeds of its printers.
“Realizing that no one company can do it alone, we decided that ours will be an open platform,” Reichental says. “Together we will unlock material performance through these partnerships and vastly extend the utility and the applications.”
Together with software company ParaMatters, Nexa3D released new software in January that speeds up the pre-production process and integrates into the factory workflow, resulting in less waste and more consistent products.
The coronavirus pandemic increased demand for some products as supply chains were disrupted. By switching to 3D printing, items can often be made more quickly and from readily available resins.
Such changes can save time and money and result in higher quality products, says Shlomo Magdassi, a chemist and academic director of the 3D & Functional Printing Center at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which conducts research on materials and printing processes.
“We are now in a transition between rapid prototyping and real manufacturing,” Magdassi says.
Globally, the industrial 3D printing sector had annual revenue of $12 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow at least 26% a year, reaching $78 billion by 2028, according to Research and Markets.
“But there are many challenges, depending on the sector, when it comes to bringing 3D printing into manufacturing,” Magdassi says. While already in use in many industries, 3D printing often still struggles with slow speeds, inconsistency and finding materials that are malleable and flexible enough to print but also durable enough to tolerate weather and other conditions.
“We founded our company out of the realization that much more is required to be done to transition polymer production to real manufacturing,” Reichental says.
Nexa3D’s ultra-high speed printer can cut down production from hours to minutes. A system based on UV light allows its printers to more quickly and accurately read and convert digital images to objects, eliminating the challenges of optical illusions that often require typical 3D printers to work more slowly and result in inconsistent quality. The printers also have a lubricating membrane, which prevents the printed objects from sticking to the vat of liquid or resin during the production process, increasing speed. Another model that binds materials together using lasers, rather than creating layers of material, performs four times faster than competitors.
This time reduction has been a long-awaited improvement. At a industry conference, when a Nexa3D representative said that the company had printed a larger-than-life sized model of Albert Einstein’s head in two and a half hours, the interviewer laughed.
“Seriously?” he asked. “That’s insane.”
Reichental says the reaction was typical because the company’s process “really does improve speed by orders of magnitude.”
The company also increased the size of production, meaning their printers can make larger objects or can produce more smaller objects at once.
“We get a geometrical improvement from size and speed,” Reichental says.
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