3D Printing: The State of the Market
This is part one of a three part series on 3D Printing. Part 2: "3D Printing: Future Impacts" , Part 3: "3D Printing: Opportunities and Challenges".
The 3D printing revolution is here. We may not realize it tomorrow or next year or even the year after that, but the next decade will surely see a profound disruption in manufacturing. How so? The technology is already widely available and requires little in the way of capital investment, so its ramp-up and roll-out is relatively easy. Performance is already rapidly improving, along with the range of materials these machines can work with. By enabling on-the-spot idea creation and customized production, all with significant reductions in waste, we also are bearing witness to a tremendous force for progress. Will these machines replace mainstream manufacturing? The answer is no—high-volume commodities are still at home on a traditional assembly line. Everything else though is in line for disruption.
What exactly is 3D printing? It’s more than a device for printing guns, that’s for sure. These printers are part of a process known as additive manufacturing, wherein products are built layer-by-layer rather than through subtraction from a larger piece of material. The process of printing in this form is pretty simple: First you download a design file, the printer reads the file, and then it deposits layers of base material through a heated nozzle into whatever shape is required. The kind of materials used are extensive and practically endless in theory, including plastic, metal, ceramics, glass, living cells, and, yes, even pizza. They are extruded in the form of powders, filaments, liquids, or sheets and turned into solid objects or interconnected, moving parts.
STATE OF THE MARKET
3D printing, already 30 years old, is reaching its era of ferment, where a hive of activity is pushing the technology toward widespread adoption, with all its associated opportunities and challenges. An ecosystem of invention is emerging around additive manufacturing in general, with thousands of new companies and business models emerging, from local auto stores making replacement parts to micro-factories enabling local commerce in developing countries.
Revenues in additive manufacturing have increased by four times over the past ten years. Global sales and services reached $2.2 billion in 2012, according to Wohlers Associates, which represents a nearly 29% increase from the year before. That’s not the end of it. By 2019, sales are expected to reach $6.5 billion. Six years after that, 3D printing is expected to have an annual economic impact in the range of $230 billion and $550 billion. These massive gains are being particularly helped by dramatically lower prices. On the consumer end, printer prices have dropped by 90% over the past 4 years and sales in this space grew by anywhere between 200% and 400% during that time.
3D printers are already a commonplace site in some commercial spaces, such as architecture or engineering firms that rely on creating rapid prototypes and designs. Lower printer prices are now opening up new uses though in the production of “complex, low volume, and highly customizable products.” Invisalign, for instance, makes up to 60,000 clear plastic teeth aligners every year using 3D printers, while Boeing prints 200 different parts for their aircraft platforms. The average industrial printer now markets for around $75,000, but can go for upwards of $1 million depending on the use and size. The real challenge for these printers comes down to the materials, which for industrial uses remain around 50 to 100 times more expensive than those used in traditional injection molding.