By Dr. Jon Harrop, Director
3D printing has come of age. The total market surpassed $1billion in revenues during 2012, and growth is expected to continue throughout all target sectors to reach $20 billion by 2025. Printer manufacturers are reporting a surge in sales as awareness of the technology grows.
3D printing opens up the opportunity for the introduction of cheap complexity into manufacturing. Structures can be printed that either could not be manufactured via alternative means or would have been prohibitively expensive to do so. And avenues for cost-effective mass customization now exist.
Price remains an issue at the high end of the market, with several users reporting that prices of these printers have not moved significantly, in contrast to the low to mid-range printers. Printers that used to cost $1 million still cost $1 million.
Historically most 3D printer manufacturers exclusively sold the materials consumed by their printers, a practice known as vendor lock-in that is commonly seen in 2D inkjet and laser printers. However, an alternative business model where end-users are free to buy consumables from any supplier, known as the free market value chain, has been steadily growing. Driven primarily by the expiration of key patents, this free market has allowed the prices of both printers and materials to fall. However, innovative technologies that maintain clear key differentiators, particularly while they are still protected by core patents, will continue to permit vendor lock-in.
Materials prices also remain at a premium with many 3D printer manufacturers reporting that their materials are optimized to their machines, effectively reducing competition. Prices for a kilogram of titanium powder for 3D printing have been reported as high as $700 whereas a kilogram of titanium comes closer to $20.
Mapping the landscape of 3D printers
Huge growth in the number of 3D printer manufacturers and printers on offer has made a wealth of information available.
The lowest price technology, thermoplastic extrusion, also offers the slowest print speeds. Other plastic printing technologies, SLA/DLP, jetting and SLS offer increasing speed with increasing price and cost up to $106. In contrast, the major metal 3D printing technologies (SLM, EBM, blown powder and welding) all cost around $106 and speed varies with technology type rather than price.
The market for 3D printers is already strong in the U.S. and Europe. Asia has been weak, but is now catching up, thanks to initiatives like the government-led TRAFAM in Japan that recently secured $100m funding.
China has not yet seen much commercial activity in 3D printing, although academic centers have been rigorously publishing in the academic journals on the subject. Revenues for exports of Chinese printer manufacturers remain far in excess of their domestic sales.
3D Printing 2015-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players provides an overview of 3D printing, including the key organizations engaged in relevant industrial R&D or academic research, end-user requirements and perspectives, challenges ahead for 3D printing, and detailed market data and forecast from 2014 through 2025.
Dr. Jon Harrop is director of IDTechEx.