Developments in Additive Manufacturing
Each year, Wohlers Associates publishes its annual report on the additive manufacturing field. This article is based on the executive summary of Wohlers Report 2009. The complete 250-page report is available from the company.
By Terry Wohlers
Principal Consultant and President
Fort Collins, CO
After more than two decades of research, development, and use, the additive manufacturing (AM) field continues to expand, driven by the introduction of new technologies, methods, and applications. Also, a growing number of industrial sectors and geographic regions are embracing the use of AM. Additive processes have had a tremendous impact on design and manufacturing, and this impact will become greater in the coming years.
AM refers to a group of technologies used for building physical models, prototypes, patterns, tooling components, and final production parts—all developed from 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) data, 3-D scanning systems, medical scanners, or video games. Unlike machining processes, which are subtractive in nature, AM joins liquid, powder, or sheet materials to form objects. The technology can produce parts that may be difficult or impossible to fabricate by any other method. Based on thin, horizontal cross sections taken from a 3-D computer model, AM systems build plastic, metal, ceramic, or composite parts—layer by layer.
The past 12 months have been an interesting period. A wide array of new product announcements, from materials to new equipment, has emerged. In the third quarter of 2008 when equipment manufacturers began to see sales decline, the economic downturn became evident. Because of recurring material and service revenues, manufacturers of AM equipment with large installed bases of systems are expected to do better at weathering the present storm.
Twenty-nine system manufacturers and 65 service providers worldwide responded to a survey for Wohlers Report 2009. These 94 companies represent an estimated 5000+ users and customers, and provided information based on their knowledge of those customers. According to the survey, companies are increasing the use of AM technology for functional modeling—the number one application of the technology. Meanwhile, direct-part production has grown from almost nothing seven years ago to the second–most-common application of AM technology.
In 2008, several companies introduced new AM systems to the market. EOS (Munich, Germany), Objet Geometries (Rehovot, Israel), Mcor Technologies (Ardee, Ireland), MTT Technologies Group (Staffordshire, England, UK), and three US companies—Optomec (Albuquerque, NM), 3D Systems (Rock Hill, SC), and Z Corp. (Burlington, MA)—introduced new machines. In the fourth quarter of 2008, chemicals giant Huntsman Advanced Materials (Basel, Switzerland) surprised many when it announced the development of an entirely new additive-manufacturing process and machine. In early 2009, Stratasys (Eden Prairie, MN) introduced the $14,900 uPrint system, which is based on Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology. ReaLizer (Borchen, Germany) and Bits from Bytes (North Somerset, UK) also introduced systems in 2009.
In 2001, 3D Systems was the unit sales leader, with an estimated 415 machines sold. Sales for the company then declined significantly over the next two years. Stratasys took over as the company with the largest installed base in 2003, and has since extended its lead. Through the end of 2008, Stratasys had sold 11,366 FDM systems, compared to an estimated 4274 sold by 3D Systems. With a customer base of 4975, Z Corp. pulled ahead of 3D Systems in 2008 with the second-largest number of installations worldwide.
Laser-sintering systems from EOS and 3D Systems accounted for 28% of systems purchased by service providers (also referred to as service bureaus) in 2008. Systems from Objet Geometries are among the systems that are gaining the most in popularity among service providers. They represent only 3% of the installed base, but they accounted for 12% of systems added in 2008 by this group of buyers.
Several countries with annual installations of 100 or more AM systems experienced double-digit growth in 2008. For example, China grew by 39.7%, France by 29.2%, Germany by 23.6%, and the UK by 15.6%. By comparison, the US grew by 4.4%, and Japan declined by a surprising 56.8%. A few countries with relatively small annual installations experienced strong growth from 2007 to 2008. They were Brazil (an increase from 23 to 42 units), Mexico (22 to 35), Sweden (47 to 70), and the Netherlands (40 to 67).
Service providers have been a fixture in the industry since additive-manufacturing systems were first introduced. They have offered part-building services to organizations that were reluctant to invest in a new technology, or could not justify the purchase of a system.
Over the past few years, however, service providers have had to contend with a business climate that places as much emphasis on cost reduction as time to market. They were also challenged to deliver value to their clients in an environment of much lower-cost AM systems that are safe and easy to operate.
While service providers continue to play a valuable role in the industry, the nature of that role is changing. Many of the services provided in the 1990s by service providers, such as concept models, are largely being performed by inhouse systems. To adapt to changing demand, most service providers have changed the types of services they offer.
A new kind of service provider is emerging and is targeting consumers. One of the best examples is Netherlandsbased Shapeways (Eindhoven), a company that is a part of the Philips Electronics' incubator program. This relatively new company allows the customer to upload a design. Shapeways then has it manufactured using AM, and ships it to the customer. While this may sound similar to working with a conventional AM service provider, the difference is that Shapeways is focused on the consumer market. Further, the company offers a portfolio of "creator" tools that is said to make it easy for customers unfamiliar with conventional design tools to create custom products. Prices range from a few dollars for a ring or key chain to $100 for a semi-custom lamp. Larger pieces can cost more.
With the exception of Japan, the growth of additive manufacturing in Asia started much later than in the US and Europe. In the late 1990s, companies were merely experimenting with the technology. Most machine installations in Asia took place at technology transfer centers, universities, and training establishments.
Additive manufacturing is having a profound impact on the way some companies manufacture products. These organizations—some very small—are successfully applying the technology to the production of finished goods. Our company believes that this practice will grow and will eventually surpass the use of AM techniques for other applications, in terms of the total amount of money spent on AM. In the future, many organizations will use AM to manufacture a wide range of custom and limited-edition products and replacement parts. Companies will also use AM for short-run and series production for part quantities ranging from a few to thousands.
Direct part production from AM systems is growing, with the dental market starting to follow the hearing-aid market in its adoption of the technology. The difference between these two markets is that the dental market is many times larger than the hearing-aid business. Further, direct-metal sintering/melting is being viewed as a viable, production-capable process in the biomedical and aerospace markets. Many organizations are investigating these processes.
For the first time, a large and impressive number of custom consumer products from AM are available for purchase from multiple sources. For example, FigurePrints LLC (Redmond, WA), a company founded by Ed Fries, former Microsoft vice president, produced 1700 custom products using AM for players of the World of Warcraft game in October 2008. This production took place only 10 months after the company launched the manufacturing service. In November, another consumer-oriented service, JuJups.com by Genometri (Singapore), began making custom Christmas ornaments with additive-manufacturing technology.
Companies in the additive-manufacturing business are optimistic about the future growth of AM for part-production applications. Responding to a survey on this subject, companies representing thousands of users and customers of AM technology from around the world believe that AM part production will represent 35.9% of their business in five years. In 10 years, the same companies believe that it will represent more than half (50.5%) of their business. Survey respondents said that AM part production was 15.6% of their business in 2008.
Methods of additive manufacturing are creating new markets for limited-edition and one-of-a-kind products. Also, additive manufacturing is causing some companies and individuals to rethink the way products are developed and brought to market. What's more, a new type of manufacturer is emerging that does not operate from a traditional manufacturing facility. This new manufacturer is producing custom and personalized products on demand.
Almost anyone, located almost anywhere, can now become a manufacturer. The only basic requirements are an Internet connection and access to one or more additive-manufacturing systems. Consequently, some large and interesting trends are becoming apparent.
More Information on Additive Manufacturing
Wohlers Report 2009 is a softbound publication written for product development and manufacturing organizations worldwide. It includes 31 charts and graphs, 45 tables, and 154 photographs and illustrations. The document can be ordered at wohlersassociates.com. In the US the price of the report is $475, and outside the US it's priced at $495.
This article was first published in the January 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.