3D printing has come of age, surpassing $1B in revenues during 2012 and with growth expected to continue across all target markets to 2025. Across the board printer manufacturers are reporting a surge in sales, some cannot meet demand, as awareness of the technologies and what they offer grows.
Highest growth will be seen in the medical and dental fields, as well as the jewellery, designer products, and architectural areas, although this will not be monotonic as 3D printing locks into the capital investment cycles of the aerospace and automotive industries, as discussed in the new report from IDTechEx "3D Printing 2013-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players"
Growth will also be relatively strong in the aerospace sector, especially towards the end of the period considered (2025), by which point aerospace companies expect to be employing 3D printing with a vengeance as qualification hurdles are jumped.
Several capex cycles in manufacturing industries are now turning over which will drive a relatively modest fall in the market in coming years with an expected compound annual growth rate of about 7.5% for the period 2012-2016.
A (nearly) unique selling point
3D printing opens up the opportunity for the introduction of cheap complexity into manufacturing. Unitized, albeit currently relatively small, structures can be printed which either could not be manufactured via alternative means, or would have been prohibitively expensive to do so.
Avenues for cost effective mass customisation now exist, a fact that has not been missed in the medical fields who are increasingly adopting 3D printing for the manufacture of prosthetics and orthopaedic implants which are optimized to a particular patient through CT or MRI scan data.
Swedish Arcam AB claim that more than 20,000 implants have been generated via its electron beam melting technology which now has both CE-certification and, more recently, has been FDA-cleared.
The generation of customised implants derived from CT or MRI scans is not a novel concept however and a number of medical device companies worldwide have for many years been using CNC machines (see below) to do exactly that. Whilst 3D printers are certainly capable of generating more complex structures, CNC machines are compatible with a wider range of materials and do not suffer from some of the weaknesses which can be associated to 3D printed parts. Many orthopaedic implants are also relatively simple in structure.
3D printer manufacturers must place themselves clearly in this market against an incumbent technology in order to ensure that the medical sector clearly understand the benefits offered.
Potential for low volume high value manufacturing also exists in the aerospace industry, and ducts within the F-18 military aircraft for example are already 3D printed in engineered plastic. Qualification of processes and materials remains an issue in this field, as does the limited size of unitized components that can currently be printed.
Price remains an issue at the high end of the market however, with several users reporting that prices of these printers have not moved significantly, in contrast to the low to mid-range printers. Printers that used to cost $1M still cost $1M, whilst printers that used to sell for $100K are now coming in at price points half of that value. Volumes are still too low at the high end of the market for printer manufacturers to have gained economies of scale and this is inhibiting uptake. The relatively small number of manufacturers with highly differentiated products and high entry costs to this market mean that prices are unlikely to fall at the top end for the foreseeable future.