3D Printing: State of the Industry

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing, terms used interchangeably, are causing unprecedented change. Corporations, government agencies, researchers, and others are investing in 3D printing technology in ways that have not been seen in the past. Countless organizations are trying to understand where it is headed and how they fit in.

Some of the biggest companies and brands in the world, such as Adobe, Autodesk, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, and Stryker have made commitments to AM, some of which are significant. HP, for example, has introduced an entirely new 3D printing technology that is 10 times faster and functions at half the cost of competitive machines.

In 2015, the 3D printing industry, consisting of all 3D printing products and services worldwide, grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.9% to USD 5.165 billion, according to the Wohlers Report 2016. This compares to 35.2% growth in 2014, when the industry reached USD 4.103 billion. The CAGR for the past three years (2013–2015) is 31.5%. The CAGR over the past 27 years is an impressive 26.2%.

Sales of 3D printing systems for metal parts—a market segment that Wohlers Associates has been tracking for 15 years—are increasing, as shown in the following chart. An estimated 808 metal 3D printing machines were sold in 2015, representing a growth of 46.9% over 2014, when 550 metal 3D printing machines were sold.

Sales of metal 3D printing machines, 2000-2015

In 2015, growth in unit sales of desktop 3D printers continued at a strong rate, increasing by 69.7% to an estimated 278'385 machines, as shown in the following chart. In comparison, an estimated 12'558 industrial machines were sold in 2015. Growth of desktop 3D printers in 2014 was 88.0%, with unit sales of 163'999 machines. Average unit sales growth of desktop 3D printers over the past four years (2012–2015) was 87.3%.

Sales of desktop 3D printers, 2007-2015

At the high end of the cost spectrum, companies are qualifying machines and materials for the direct manufacture of parts that go into final products. Aerospace companies such as Aerosud, Airbus, Bell Helicopter, Boeing, Honeywell Aerospace, and Lockheed Martin are certifying new designs for flight. In April 2016, GE Aviation delivered to Airbus its first two LEAP engines that include 3D-printed fuel nozzles. The advanced design consolidates 20 parts into one, is 25% lighter, and is five times more durable.

When consolidating many parts into one or fewer parts, companies eliminate part numbers, inventory, assembly, labor, inspection, maintenance, and certification paperwork. Using topology optimization—a method of letting mathematics decide where to put the material to optimize the strength to weight ratio—it is possible to produce parts that are up to 50% lighter. Also, it is possible to redesign parts with relatively thin skins with internal lattice, mesh, or cellular structures instead of using solid material throughout. This can further reduce the amount of material and weight of a part.

The 3D printing industry continues to encounter challenges. Among them are system reliability and process repeatability, especially when using 3D printing for production applications. 3D printing system manufacturers are addressing these challenges with real-time process monitoring and control software, but much work remains. The current limitation in build speed and maximum part size are also challenges. A few manufacturers are developing systems with larger build volumes and methods that increase throughput, but they are relatively expensive and less popular.

3D-printed product liability

3D printing could cause changes to the product liability system. With traditional manufacturing, an established product supply chain includes one or a team of designers, one or more manufacturers, and product distribution and sales. 3D printing disrupts this structure by blurring the roles with a potential role for a consumer in the chain. With the flexibility and personalization that 3D printing offers, consumers can more easily get involved in the product development process. What’s more, almost anyone, located almost anywhere, can now become a manufacturer.

Consider someone designing a basic product and making it available on the web. Someone buys the design and makes modifications to it and then sells it to a consumer, who has it 3D-printed. In this scenario, who is the designer, manufacturer, or distributor of the product in the case of injury or loss? When more than one person can change a design, tracing the product’s development history can be difficult. The manufacturer could be the consumer who contracts with someone to have the product manufactured.

Misconceptions and early adoption

Potential users of 3D printing and others have a range of misconceptions about the technology. For example, significant differences exist between industrial-grade systems and the sub-$5,000 3D printers. Most 3D printing systems are relatively slow, and economies of scale apply, but not in the same way as conventional methods of manufacturing. Also, 3D printing can be more energy-intensive than conventional processes. 3D printing is not a “push button” technology, and pre- and post-build work is usually required, especially for metal parts. 3D printing is not inherently superior to subtractive or formative methods of manufacturing, although it depends on the types of parts being built and the design optimization that goes into them.

The industries that are among the early adopters of 3D printing for series production include aerospace, medical, dental, and some consumer products. 3D printing favors the types of parts that are produced in relatively low volumes, are of high value, and complex. As system speed increases, overall costs decline, making 3D printing viable for a broader range of production applications. One example is automotive, which has used 3D printing for more than two decades for prototyping, but most auto companies are not using it for production applications. This will change in the future.

Market potential

The global economy is estimated at USD 80 trillion, and manufacturing accounts for about 16%, or USD 12.8 trillion. At about USD 5.2 billion in 2015, 3D printing represents about 0.04% of all manufacturing—which is less than 1/20th of 1%. If 3D printing grows to capture just 5% of this global market, it would become a USD 640 billion industry. Wohlers Associates believes that annual sales of 3D printing products and services will someday exceed 5% of the total.

By 2017, Wohlers Associates forecasts the sale of 3D printing products and services to reach nearly USD 8.8 billion worldwide. By 2021, the market is expected to grow to more than USD 26 billion, as shown in the following chart. These forecasts assume the manufacturing economy will not be affected by factors, such as a global economic recession.

Forecasted sales of 3D printing products and services, 2017-2021

It is an exciting time for design and manufacturing. Never before have so many new options become available. Individuals, companies, and other organizations have had 28 years to learn how to apply 3D printing technology to modeling and prototyping. For the most part, 3D printing is well understood for these applications. The next frontier is to apply 3D printing to the production of parts for final products. This is where the largest opportunities lie and where most investments will be made in the future. It will not come without a range of interesting challenges.


Terry Wohlers
President, Wohlers Associates Inc.

Terry Wohlers is principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc., an independent consulting firm he founded 29 years ago. Wohlers has provided consulting assistance to more than 240 organizations in 24 countries, as well as to 150+ companies in the investment community. He has authored 400 books, articles, and technical papers and has given more than 130 keynote presentations on five continents. For 21 years, Wohlers has been a principal author of the Wohlers Report, an annual worldwide publication focused on additive manufacturing and 3D printing. It has served as the undisputed industry-leading report on the subject for two decades.