3D printing moves from prototypes to production

As market quadruples to $12B in 10 years, it'll increasingly be used to make complex parts in a variety of industries, from manufacturing to electronics

3D printing will become a mainstream production method within a decade as the range of industrial applications skyrockets and printer speeds double or triple.

The 3D printing market is expected to quadruple over the next decade to $12 billion, moving from its main use today of creating prototypes to the most complex of production parts, according to Lux Research.

3D printing, which has been around for 30 years, has mainly been used to create product prototypes. That's because product designs are easily manipulated in computer-aided design (CAD) software before being sent off to a printer.

Because of its slow speed, 3D printing will likely never be used to manufacture tens of thousands of anything, but the printers are expected to double or triple in speed over the next decade.

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"You won't 3D print a Ford F150 truck or 400,000 screws, but can manufacture jet engines or customized orthopedics for patients," said Anthony Vicari, a Lux Research associate and the lead author of a report on 3D printing's future. "You may be able to save manufacturing costs and reduce the prices of end parts."

This 3D printed gear design displays how a working part can be made in a single print run. (Image: Lucas Mearian)

For example, a large online community has already grown around 3D printed prosthetics. Customized prosthetic legs and arms that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture can be made for pennies on the dollar today.

For example, Leon McCarthy has no fingers on his left hand because of a congenital birth defect. Until recently, doctors told McCarthy's family not to even consider a custom-engineered prosthesis due to the high cost -- $10,000 to $80,000, depending on quality.

McCarthy's father, however, partnered with a local teacher and the two found plans for a prosthetic hand online, which they were able to produce for about $5 in materials.

3D printers are adept at creating complex parts far faster than traditional manufacturing techniques and they can do it in a single run without the need for tools, dies and lathes. Because of that, 3D printing will be used to make working devices for the aerospace, medical, automotive, architecture, electronics and even consumer products industry.

This portable power drill body was printed by a Stratasys 3D printer using three types of thermo polymers, each with different composition -- from the hard shell to a soft, rubbery grip. (Image: Lucas Mearian).

"Consumer uses of 3D printing attract most of the headlines, but industrial uses, from molds and tooling to actual production parts, are quietly having the greatest impact," Vicari said. "Where I see most room for improvement is in the range of materials that can be used to 3D print, multi-material printing and improved design methods."

The sale of 3D printers alone will be worth $3.2 billion, while another $2 billion in revenue will come from thermo polymers and other formulated materials used for printing. The lion's share of the market -- $7 billion worth -- will come from the value of the products produced by 3D printers, according to Lux Research.

"We're seeing the highest growth rates in the manufacturing side," Vicari said. "We're seeing manufacturing growing from a small share of the market -- 12% today -- to 46% of the market in 2025."

For example, General Electric this year plans to use 3D printing to create complex metal parts for its next generation next-generation GE9X and Leap models engine.

Commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus saves millions of dollars in parts production and fuel costs by shaving off the gross weight of an aircraft through 3D printing. Its vision is far more radical than parts, though, and someday it plans to completely print a 3D plane, according to Curtis Carson, head of systems integration, at the Airbus Centre of Competence Manufacturing Engineering.

"When you look at the 40 million components in an aircraft, that means our stock and inventories use up a significant amount of money," Carson said at the "Inside 3D Printing Conference" earlier this month in New York.

Being able to produce parts on an "as needed" basis reduces the need for inventory, Carson said.

Additionally, by using 3D printings "additive manufacturing" process, versus the traditional "subtractive manufacturing" process involved in lathing machine parts, waste materials drop from 90% to 5% to 10%, he said.

"It's called buy to fly. How much material do we buy and how much of that material ends up flying," Carson said. "It's as simple as that. If you can buy and fly exactly what you purchase, you're able to optimize 100% in terms of the aircraft. Who wouldn't be excited about doing something like this?"

Of all of the 3D printing market sectors, parts production is expected to grow the most over the next decade (Image: Lux Research).

Market is shifting

Among the Lux Research report's findings is that the price of printing materials currently are an impediment to industry growth. Much like 2D print makers, manufacturers often sell printing materials at a steep markup - 10 to 100 times over what it costs them.

While the markup was tolerated when companies only used 3D printers for prototyping parts, it it remains a major impediment to the use of the technology for production parts. 3D printing leaders such as 3D Systems, Stratasys and EOS have restricted third-party material suppliers from entering the market, the Lux Research report says.

Based on technical and business scores, only four printer companies currently dominate the 3D "innovation sector," according to Vicari. They are: 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS and Arcam. The four hold a combined 31% printer market share.

"Of these, Arcam is distinguished by its open materials supply model," Vicari said.

One change that's expected to spur growth involves a number of expiring patents. In 2006, expiration of several early patent families enabled the emergence of lower-cost desktop printers from companies like Makerbot, as well as consumer-facing 3D printer service providers such as Shapeways.

But, "an even bigger shift is coming" as patents on other key 3D printing technologies start to expire over the next three years, lowering costs for those methods and widening the range of capabilities available to users.

For example, patents on selective laser sintering (SLS), along with the process for removing support material on fused deposition modeling and photopolymer inkjet printing all expire this year. In 2015, the patent for SLS printing of filled composites also expires.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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