Additive manufacturing: Open vs. closed systems

The evolution of technology and market needs in additive manufacturing.
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From sideshow to the main stage

Additive manufacturing has shed the hobbyist tag it earned when it burst upon the public imagination decades ago. Today, it's become an everyday tool used in industries as diverse as aerospace and medicine. 


Now, driven by innovations in materials and printer technology, additive manufacturing is poised to expand beyond well-established applications like aviation and medical devices, to become fully integrated into a much larger range of commercial production. 


Closed 3D printing systems created for the commercial market proved their viability and value to a diverse set of industries. But today open systems have arisen, disrupting the market and competing for the future of AM. 

AM printing: Closed for business

In AM, a closed system generally describes an AM production system including a printer, build, and support material designed by a single vendor. 


In the early stages of 3D development, this integration was an advantage, if not necessity, enabling steady gains in what AM could achieve in terms of performance and efficiency. 


For users, a proprietary system instilled confidence and provided predictable results — a prerequisite for integration into commercial applications. 


3D printing gained traction in prototyping, research, and production of jigs and fixtures — applications where its limitations, speed, cost-per-part, and finish quality were more than offset by its advantages. 


However, closed systems come with limited material choices. The market demand for greater flexibility drove interest in open systems. 

AM printing: Open for business

An open additive manufacturing solution is defined by hardware that's designed for compatibility with any suitable build and support material. The increasing adoption of additive manufacturing, fueled by steady improvements in performance and material compatibility, has taken place in tandem with open systems development. 


Initially, open printing systems were more hobbyist in nature, but thanks to a dedicated community, the number of users increased, perhaps even faster than the closed system developers. 

Open systems are driving an acceleration of material development and availability.
— Brandon Cernohous, Infinite

The broader story is one of AM's evolution, from a prototyping and R&D tool to its adoption as an at-scale manufacturing technology. For some industries, widespread integration remains more aspirational than in-practice, but the momentum is there and it's generating demand, and a market, for innovation among material suppliers. 


"Open systems are driving an acceleration of material development and availability," said Brandon Cernohous, Research and Development Manager, Americas, Infinite Material Solutions. "The range of materials available for 3D printing has really expanded." 

three spools of filament on a table

Disrupting the disruptors

Disruptors are the rockstars of the contemporary cultural landscape, and while AM hasn’t produced any bold-face, headline-dominating names, it has had its share of smash hits. 


The 95% time and cost savings on a fixture are real (not hype), proving that AM has disrupted key areas of production. That kind of success generates a lot of interest among users and would-be suppliers. Today, open systems have moved from the side stage to the main stage. 


New players in the AM systems space are disrupting the industry, challenging those who’ve created the market as it stands today. Take, for example, Titan Robotics' new hybrid printer, which combines additive and subtractive capabilities on a 3-axis milling system on the same gantry, enabling 3D printed parts to be machined both during and after the printing process. 


Or look at Essentium's latest printer, which uses a multimodal heating method that heats the part itself, rather than the usual approach of a heated build chamber, eliminating the need to wait for the chamber to heat up to start printing. 


The arrival of open systems supplanting closed system innovators is a familiar storyline in technology but one whose outcome, in this case, may prove to be more nuanced than winner-takes-all. 

a 3D printer printing a small object

The case is open

Open AM systems are gaining traction among manufacturers because of the flexibility, cost advantages, and material innovations offered by a growing pool of suppliers. 


At a fundamental business level, closed systems are met with resistance. As Cernohous explains, "The pricing structure of closed systems resembles the desktop printer business's inkjet or toner approach to materials. This doesn't necessarily work in manufacturing where materials are commoditized." 


There’s also a cultural component to the history of open systems development. Similar to the computer software industry, the open system alternative has attracted a loyal user base. Open systems tend to attract entrepreneurial energy, innovators, and other independent thinkers whose efforts at the margins can transfer to widespread application.

Open systems are free from the restrictions on materials and that is accelerating the pace of material development for AM and opening up new opportunities.
— Carl Corten, Infinite

Open systems allow users to modify and adapt systems to their needs. This can mean better results now, it also means a decreased risk of obsolescence, lowering a barrier to entry.


An open system unlocks applied research and process optimization options for a company with sufficient design and engineering resources by enabling access to material preset settings. 


Users may dial in an open system to achieve better results, but they're also free to explore new applications, materials, and uses that the hardware manufacturer hadn’t envisioned at all.

two engineers in a warehouse looking at a computer

Working within a closed vs open system

Material compatibility can get a little complex, and this is one reason for the past dominance of closed systems where options were limited but proven to work as long as the user followed the manufacturer's recommended pairings. Today, the market has matured and a wider range of proven material options and lower costs have given open systems greater momentum. 


The increasing adoption of additive manufacturing will fuel demand for new options and better-performing alternatives to those on the market today. 


"Creating an Ultimaker profile required months of work on our part, but the result was worth it: providing customers the flexibility of an open system with the certainty of a closed system," said Brandon Cernohous, Production Operations Manager for Infinite Material Solutions.

The case is closed

Case closed then, for the systems makers who built today’s AM capabilities? 


Not so fast. 


Closed systems offer a turnkey solution, predictable results, and a degree of support generally not available from open systems makers. 


In a highly regulated industry like aerospace, certification may dictate not just the material but the specific machine used to print the part. As Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., COO for Infinite Material Solutions explains, "Getting a part certified for aerospace is extremely expensive and approval will specify the material and the machine used. To date that, the process has only been pursued on manufacturers working with closed systems."

two engineers with helmets talking

The established players also possess a tremendous amount of intellectual property. That knowledge and the tight integration between hardware, software, and filaments may put them in a stronger position to outstrip the competition in print speed and software integration — two areas that many insiders see driving the next wave of innovation. 


And as far as what lies ahead, global media company 3D Printing Industry turned to those who know the sector the best. In the article, "100 3D Printing Experts Predict the Future of 3D Printing in 2030," Andreas Langfeld, president of Stratasys EMEA, cited the areas he sees as transformative. “I expect the industry to reach new frontiers insofar as print speeds and reliability – two areas that will see the technology likely make inroads into new application areas within its current key industries, as well as open up many new ones."

An open invitation for innovation

Closed system providers will need to press every advantage they have if recent industry polls and market statistics are reliable forward indicators. 


Sentiment among industry leaders supports a bullish outlook for open systems. Industry Week recently reported on this survey by Essentium, stating: "Manufacturers are now demanding open ecosystems to overcome system inflexibility and use the materials of their choice with 50% of respondents saying they need high quality and affordable materials to meet the growing demand for industrial 3D printed parts. While 85% of manufacturers reported that industrial-scale additive manufacturing has the potential to increase revenue for their business, 22% said vendor lock-in has hampered needed flexibility. " 


An industry report from Boston Consulting Group also predicts the adoption of open systems. In "Surviving Disruption in Additive Manufacturing," the authors write: "As AM processes become more widely adopted for higher-volume industrial production, open systems will likely come to prevail throughout the industry. We expect users to increasingly demand an open system in which they can purchase materials qualified for specific equipment directly from their preferred material suppliers." 


Whatever the future holds, today users have the option to choose the system that best meets their needs. And that sounds like a win-win.



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