3D printing is on the rise, as are industrial applications of it. Last year, the total turnover for the industry was US$13.2 billion.
Although this figure is still far from the initial expectations which promised a 3D printer in every home in the near future, additive digital manufacturing has brought solutions and business opportunities for numerous industries. Indeed, by developing new applications and demand for innovation in materials and inputs, it is the corporate sector that is currently driving global growth in the market for the printing of three-dimensional objects.
According to the consultancy firm IDC, global purchases of 3D printers, materials, software, and related services were worth US$30.2 billion in 2016. In 2020, it is estimated that total spending will reach US$28.9 billion. The United States accounts for a quarter of the income in this market between 2015 and 2020, while the three largest regions (Western Europe, the Asia Pacific excluding Japan, and Japan) explain over 50% of turnover.
“Between 2014 and 2019, the market for these units will have grown at an average 37% per year. Within the technology industry, if we compare it with mature technologies like PCs or smartphones, which are growing at moderate or even negative rates, 3D printing is experiencing really robust growth,” argues Luciano Crippa, head of research and consulting at IDC Latin America. “The major challenges for the industry are developing new materials and cutting down printing times.”
According to Mr. Crippa, 30% of turnover in the global 3D printing industry originates in the automotive sector, where it is still mainly used for design and prototyping. Next on the list are the aerospace and defense sector (17.8%), the industry of designing and printing components for assembly processes (7.5%), and the sphere of architecture and design (6.9%). Other, smaller industries are growing quickly. “The medicine sector is very significant: for example, the use of 3D printing in prosthetics is growing at 60% per year while that of medical implants is growing at over 50%,” says Mr. Crippa. There is even a market for printing food which, although still small, is doubling each year, he says. “Use in the architecture and design sector are growing by over 30% per year, and the technology gives designers unprecedented creative capacity. Although some of these printers are used in the corporate sphere, there has been an increase in firms that supply 3D printing services to end users. These suppliers to focus on personalized entertainment or gift products and SMEs who outsource their printing services,” Mr. Crippa explains.
In 2016, the consultancy firm EY looked at 900 firms from 12 countries and predicted growth in 3D printing of over 25% per year up to 2020. According to the survey, 24% of firms have experience using this technology and a further 12% are considering adopting it. “Many managers still associate additive manufacturing with prototyping. However, looking to the future, the potential growth of this technology lies in the development of products and components for industries such as tools and machine components. The manufacture of high-quality products and the variety of new ingredients that can be used in 3D printing, such as metal, ceramics, and organic matter, is encouraging companies to consider this technology. Many are already taking advantage of this opportunity,” says the report. According to EY’s survey, one in three companies with experience in 3D printing are already applying this technology to their manufacturing processes, while 20% are manufacturing end-use products and components through 3D printing. “These are mainly companies in the plastics, automotive, aerospace, medical, and pharmaceutical industries,” the report says.
Small-scale use only represents a marginal share of the global 3D printing market, IDC says. “Home users account for only 3.3% of the global market,” Mr. Crippa explains. “Our short- and medium-term expectations are that it will not grow fast enough to change the current outlook,” he adds. “There is certainly a prospect of users having 3D solutions within their own homes. It just may not be as close as was initially thought,” he concludes.
“The industry is moving forward very quickly, but the input and materials segment is developing fastest in terms of innovation,” says Irene Presti, president of the Argentine Chamber of 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing. “New materials for creating objects appear each month. Although most are still made of plastic, manufacturers are combining this with other inputs to create new properties that improve the product’s hardness, flexibility, or resistance,” Ms. Presti explains.
Other materials with different properties that are used for printing today include glass, ceramics, and different types of polymers. “In the industrial environment, printing with metal is really important, as it can withstand high temperatures. Another key printing material is sand to make casting molds in complex shapes,” she adds.
According to the EY report, the material that is currently most in demand for 3D printing is metal (52% of cases), followed by polymers (31%), and ceramics (6%).
“Other developments include biomaterials, such as hydroxyapatite for bone regeneration, hyaluronic acid for skin regeneration, and mother cells. But most are still at the research stage, due to regulatory limitations,” Ms. Presti warns.
So far, 3D printing is mainly used in firms in the areas of design and prototyping, as this technology significantly accelerates development times. It is also used to quickly manufacture industrial machinery components that have broken or to create specific products to high levels of precision that are hard to obtain from an outside supplier. “There are gains in both time and the quality of the product. The digital creation process allows you to generate highly complex designs,” says Ms. Presti. “It is very disruptive.”
Continual R&D into materials, inputs, and printing techniques, along with the possibility of printing new objects—including working human organs, which is still at the experimental stage—suggest that this industry has a long future ahead of it.