3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, allows solid objects to be built from a series of layers using plastic, metal, or other materials. This technology can thereby produce sophisticated structures with greater flexibility and efficiency and less waste compared to traditional manufacturing techniques, which require longer setup times and higher material and labor costs.

The use of 3D printers to make prototypes considerably reduces product development cycles and can even help protect confidentiality by allowing for greater independence in design and production. Given its relatively low setup costs, additive manufacturing also represents an attractive alternative to conventional manufacturing when only limited quantities of items need to be produced.


3D Printer Demand

World demand for 3D printers and related materials and software is projected to rise 21% per year to $5 billion in 2017. While professional uses such as prototyping will continue to account for the majority of demand, the more rapid growth will be seen in production and consumer applications. 3D printers will increasingly be used to manufacture direct production parts and finished goods in a variety of applications.

In the consumer segment, projected price drops in desktop 3D printers (helped by the upcoming expiration of patents) will motivate purchases by hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers for at-home use. Gains will also be driven by a growing awareness and interest in 3D printing technologies. In addition, as 3D printing speeds and material quality improve, greater adoption of additive manufacturing technologies is expected.

Robust growth in demand for printing materials is expected, as the rapidly expanding installed base of 3D printers fuels related materials consumption. Plastics such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), and nylon were the first types of materials used in 3D printing, and remain the simplest to work with. Plastics will continue to account for the majority of materials demand, but faster growth is projected for metals, based on their greater strength and resistance, as well as rapid gains in markets such as aerospace. Demand for software and other 3D printing products such as 3D scanners will grow in line with the overall average, supported by the ongoing need for technological updates and upgrades.


Applications and Geographic Reach

Some of the fastest growth will be seen in the medical and dental market, with especially good opportunities expected in dental applications such as braces, prostheses, crowns, bridges, dental aligners, and models for dental restoration procedures. Other significant markets for 3D printing products include consumer products (e.g., jewelry, toys, fashion clothing, consumer electronics), automotive, and aerospace. For instance, in 2013 General Electric announced plans to use 3D printers to produce fuel nozzles for its next-generation jet engine. These nozzles are expected to be lighter and stronger than those produced using conventional production techniques.

The U.S. is expected to remain by far the largest national 3D printing market in the world, accounting for 42% of global sales in 2017. In developed areas such as the U.S. and Western Europe, 3D printing market value will be supported by the growing presence of metal-based 3D printers for the production of finished parts, as such systems are significantly more expensive than plastics-based 3D printing systems. Rapid gains are expected in China, where most applications (especially in large markets such as consumer products manufacturing) center on design, sample testing, or prototyping. Demand in China will also benefit from significant government funding in academic institutions, science and research centers, as well as manufacturing companies.

In 2012, three companies—Stratasys (Israel), 3D Systems (U.S.) and EOS (Germany)—supplied 35% of the global 3D printing market. All three offer 3D printers as well as related consumable materials and software. Both Stratasys and 3D Systems have substantially expanded their presence in the worldwide 3D printing industry via major acquisitions in recent years. Following Stratasys’ acquisition of MakerBot Industries, the company became the largest supplier of consumer 3D printers in the world. For its part, 3D Systems acquired Figulo in December 2013, which allowed 3D Systems to enter the ceramic 3D printing market.

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