3-D Printing: Growing Like a Weed
Only a few years ago, 3-D printing for the masses was essentially unknown outside of laboratories and academia, but that is changing rapidly. In fact, the use of 3-D printing to produce parts for final products is encroaching on 30% of the total number of 3-D printed parts, according to analyst firm Wohlers Associates, which has been following this market closely as long as anyone. Production of final parts rose to 28.3% of the $2.2 billion spent globally in 2013 on 3D printing products compared to 3.9% in 2003.
Parts for final products, according to Wohlers Associates, is likely to move well beyond prototyping applications because the ratio of prototypes to production parts is often 1:1,000 or greater making the opportunity for commercial production based on additive manufacturing enormous. Although some of the most well-publicized uses of 3-D printing include dental crowns and bridges as well as orthopedic implants and jewelry, the aerospace industry is not far behind and moving fast.
Boeing, a big proponent of additive manufacturing, produces control system ducting that directs airflow on military and commercial aircraft, and GE will use 3D-printed fuel nozzles on its next-generation LEAP engine, making about 40,000 nozzles a year for its aircraft engines over the next few years. Rolls-Royce is also investigating the use of 3-D printing to make the parts used in aircraft engines lighter as well.
As for the industry as a whole, a report from Wohlers Associates projects that the 3-D printing industry will post double-digit growth reaching $6 billion by 2017 and $10.8 billion by 2021. Looking back, it took the industry 20 years just to get to $1 billion in revenue, and five years later it rose to $2 billion. The company expects it to double again to $2 billion in 2015.
Wohlers Associates is not the only market research firm that projects massive increases in the 3-D printing market in the coming years. A market research report from MarketsandMarkets shows the market growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 23% to 2020, reaching $8.41 billion. The two reports agree that for obvious reasons the industry will focus its attention on volume manufacturing.
The main driving factors responsible for the explosive growth of the 3D printing market include new and improved technologies, a variety of materials ranging from polymers to living tissue, supportive regulations, government funding, a huge untapped market, and the expiration of patents on Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Other factors include new materials such as polymers, metals/alloys, sand, ceramics, and even living tissue, government funding, a huge number of potential applications, and the increasing revelation by traditional manufacturers of the benefits provided by 3-D additive manufacturing over traditional techniques.
Still another market analyst, Gartner, predicts that shipments of 3-D printers will dramatically increase over the 49% it grew in 2013 that showed worldwide shipments of 3-D printers costing less than $100,000 totaling 56,507 units. Gartner says that shipments will increase by 75% in 2014 to 98,065 units, and double that in 2015.
Gartner expects end-user spending on 3-D printers to exceed the roughly $412 million spent in 2013, which was 43% greater than the $288 million spent in 2012. Spending will increase in 2014 by 62% reaching $669 million with enterprise spending of $536 million and consumer spending of $133 million.
The Freedonia Group, yet another analyst, projects 3-D printing growth of 20% per year to $5 billion in 2017, stating that design and prototype operations will continue to be the primary applications but that production-level operations will grow much faster. The company also sees significant growth in printing materials such ABS, PLA, and nylon, as well as metals for applications in the industrial and aerospace markets.
Freedonia believes that the US will continue to be the 3-D printing leader for the seeable future accounting for 42% of global sales in 2017, with Western Europe and Asia Pacific rapidly increasing their presence. Not surprisingly, China is expected to rapidly increase its use of 3-D additive printing as its enormous capabilities and consumer products manufacturing make it a welcome resource as labor costs increase.