There has been tremendous growth in the field of 3D printing surpassing $1B in revenues during 2012 and with considerable growth, which is expected to continue across all target markets to 2025. There has been a rapid rise in sales and some printer manufacturers are not able to meet demand as the awareness of the technology and its awareness grows.
The highest growth may be seen in the dental and medical fields as well as in designer products, jewellery and architecture, although this will not be monotonic as 3D printing locks into the capital investment cycles of the aerospace and automotive industries, as discussed in the new report from IDTechEx "3D Printing 2013-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players"
Figure 1. Market size by applicational sector in US$ million (Source: IDTechEx report "3D Printing 2013-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players")
It is also anticipated that there will be significant growth in the aerospace sector, especially towards the end of 2025, by which time it is expected that the aerospace industry will use 3D printing extensively. A number of capex cycles in manufacturing industries are now turning over which will drive a considerably modest fall in the market in coming years with an expected compound annual growth rate of about 7.5% for the period 2012-2016.
Unique Selling Point of 3D Printing
3D printing will enable cheap complexity in the field of manufacturing. It will become possible to manufacture unitized, considerably small structures that could not be manufactured by an alternative method or would have been highly expensive.
Areas for cost-effective mass customization presently exist, a fact that has not been missed in medical fields that are adopting 3D printing extensively 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 through its electron beam melting technology which now has both CE-certification and, more recently, has been FDA-cleared. Generating customized 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.
While 3D printers can generate more complex structures, CNC machines are compatible with a wider range of materials and do not suffer from defects that can be related to 3D printed parts. Many orthopaedic implants are also relatively simple in structure.
Figure 2. High speed CNC milling of a knee joint. (Source: Siemens)
Challenges Facing 3D Printing
It is necessary that 3D printer manufacturers place themselves in this market against an incumbent technology to make sure that the medical sector understand the benefits offered clearly.
There is also a potential for low-volume, high-value manufacturing 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 remain an issue in this field, as does the limited size of unitized components that can be presently printed.
Price is still an issue at the high end of the market with a number of users reporting that these printer prices have not moved significantly in contrast to low to mid-range printers. Printers that used to cost $1M still cost $1M, while printers that used to sell for $100K are now coming in at price points half of that value. Volumes are also quite low at the moment. One cannot foresee any drop in price in the near future especially as there are a relatively small number of manufacturers with highly differentiated products and high entry costs.
Materials prices also remain at a premium with 3D printer manufacturers reporting that their materials are optimised to their machines, considerably reducing competition.
The price for 1 kg of titanium powder for printing is as high as US$700, whereas 1 kg of titanium is below US$100.
3D Printing vs. CNC Machines
This report compiled by collating interviews with both key players in 3D printing as well as end-user organisations, addresses all aspects of 3D printing including the technologies, current and future applications, patent and publication trends, company profiles, and detailed forecasts are provided in comparison to the growth of the computer numerical control (CNC) market.
CNCs are used across a similar range of target markets as 3D printing. CNC machines are used for rapid tooling, prototyping, and low volume production runs. Customers include the aerospace and automotive industries, also the medical sector and specialised machines exist serving the dental and jewellery fields.
It is important to note that the advent of CNC machining was described as an industrial revolution by a number of people and that its inventor, John T. Parsons, was awarded by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers with a plaque in 1975 naming him "The Father of the Second Industrial Revolution".
The CNC market shows an established periodic nature because of the capital expenditure cycles of the markets it and 3D printers serve, and it is quite natural that the 3D printing market will observe a similar periodicity as it penetrates into the same sectors.
During times of capex turnover, revenues for the 3D printer manufacturers will be bolstered by continued materials sales, although many users will remain careful with materials usage whilst prices remain so high.
The market for 3D printers is strong in the USA and is also picking up in Europe but is quite weak in Asia at present as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Revenue breakdown by region, 2012
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