The past 12–18 months have been more exciting than any similar period in the history of additive manufacturing (AM), more commonly known as 3D printing. For those who had any doubts about its future, they have been put to rest due to the recent string of events. Industry-wide growth, investment, startups, new businesses, and new products and services around the world are making a lasting impression that few anticipated.
The rapid growth in metal AM that began in 2013 continues to be scorching hot. Annual growth in machine unit sales averaged 59.2% for the years 2013, 2014, and 2015, according to our research for the Wohlers Report. Growth figures for 2016 were not yet available at press time, although the data collected to date suggests that metal AM is continuing its momentum.
The chart above shows the number of metal AM machines sold annually.
The proliferation of desktop (under $5000) 3D printers continues unabated. Almost weekly, a new company emerges with a clone machine that mimics fused deposition modeling (FDM) from Stratasys, or a variation of stereolithography (SL), originally commercialized by 3D Systems. Most of the FDM clones use ABS or PLA, while the SL clones use photopolymer and often digital light processing (DLP) in combination with LEDs.
Many of these machines are going to companies of all sizes for concept modeling and limited prototyping. It often does not make sense anymore to tie up $300,000 machines to produce early design models when much of it can be done on inexpensive 3D printers. According to our research, the average selling price of desktop 3D printers is $1055, so many educational institutions are buying them in large numbers to equip entire labs and provide opportunities for hands-on learning.
Startup companies of all types are seemingly coming out the woodwork. An almost endless number of ideas around software, cloud services, materials, and machines are leading to hundreds of new companies and business models worldwide. As with most startups, they are small and being rolled out locally, so unless you can read the native language Web sites (Chinese, Korean, etc.), it is difficult to know much about some of them.
Major corporations and brands are offering, or preparing to offer, AM machines, materials, and/or services. Among them are Canon, GE, HP, Lenovo, Polaroid, Ricoh, Siemens, and Toshiba. Others include Alcoa, Autodesk, BASF, Dassault Systèmes, Dow Corning, Praxair, SAP, and Toshiba. The level of commitment that these companies have made thus far varies, although the actions taken by some have been surprising.
Meanwhile, other large corporations are gearing up to manufacture significant parts and products using AM. Most of them have used AM for many years for aesthetics, ergonomics, fit and function testing, and some types of tooling. Using it to deliver production volumes, however, is an entirely different animal. Among these companies are Airbus, Aston Martin, Jabil, Honda, Lockheed Martin, Reebok, Stryker, and Under Armour. Jabil, for example, is one of the largest contract manufacturers in the world and has built an AM team of more than 30 employees. One year ago, it consisted of fewer than five people. John Dulchinos, vice president of Global Automation and 3D Printing at Jabil, stated that up to about 30% of all parts being manufactured at the company could be 3D printed in the future.
Other major companies are working in the background and have not yet announced their plans. Some are exploring and debating ways in which they might enter the AM business. They have been asked by senior management and boards of directors to identify ways to tap into this 3D printing phenomenon, not knowing how or even why they should. In some ways, it is a solution looking for a problem. Even so, the fact that they are taking it so seriously is interesting, especially given that SL technology was commercialized 29 years ago.
The past year has been one of significant investments in AM. The one receiving the most attention was GE’s acquisitions of 76% of Arcam and 75% of Concept Laser, with a combined value of an estimated $1.4 billion. Arcam and Concept Laser manufacture AM machines that produce metal parts. Meanwhile, Carbon, a small but fast-growing producer of SL machines, has received investments of a remarkable $220 million thus far.
Jabil is one of the largest contract manufacturers in the world and has built an AM team of more than 30 employees. One year ago, it consisted of fewer than five people.
To gain a better sense of ongoing spending in AM, Wohlers Associates looked at total investments in a relatively short and random period last year. In the months of June through August 2016, the company came across five publicly announced investments totalling more than $260 million, and they exclude the Carbon and GE transactions. It is possible, even likely, that a number of non-public investments were also made during this period.
Several companies are developing products that join additive and subtractive (i.e., CNC milling) processes into a single machine. The belief is that one platform can combine the benefit of producing complex structures made possible with AM with the accuracy and surface finish of milling. The idea has merit, although the current offerings have not entered the mainstream and are mostly in their infancy. Among the companies that are offering, or planning to offer hybrid systems, are DMG Mori, Matsuura, Mazak, Mitsui Seiki, Optomec, and Thermwood. Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies has commercialized a deposition head that can be integrated into a CNC machining center, an approach that Mazak has chosen.
Not that many years ago, you could count on one hand the number of companies that offered third-party materials for AM. Today, the situation has changed dramatically, with dozens of companies around the world offering products. What led to this change? As patents expired and companies and businesses developed, new machines emerged with an open materials business model. An avalanche of new AM systems spawned the growth of countless new businesses at established materials companies, as well as at startups.
Today, more third-party materials are available for metal AM systems than for polymer systems. This is interesting, given that metal systems did not begin to gain traction until 2013. From 2005 to 2012, only 101 to 202 systems were sold annually worldwide, according to the Wohlers Report. Meanwhile, industrial-based polymer AM systems (those priced at more than $5000) have sold in the thousands of units annually for each of the past 12 years. The difference is that the metal systems are mostly open, meaning that third-party materials can be used with them.
For more than two decades, some governments, mostly in the West, have offered research funding mechanisms through science agencies and other departments. The awards have been ongoing, but relatively small. Today, a number of national governments around the world have launched programs that have elevated the importance and stature of AM. Among the countries with national AM programs are Australia, China, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, UK, and the US. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, more commonly known as America Makes, was launched in September 2012. It is believed that this public-private initiative motivated other countries to also give AM the attention, respect, and investment it deserves.
Aerospace, medicine, and dentistry are among the early adopters of AM for production quantities. They are a good fit because production quantities are relatively low in these industries, but complexity and value are usually high. Some consumer products are also being produced by AM, but in niche areas such as custom and limited edition jewelry and lighting designs. Other examples include eyeglass frames, soles for athletic shoes, bicycles, and even water faucets. Most of these products are at the high end of the consumer cost spectrum.
Not that many years ago, you could count on one hand the number of companies that offered third-party materials for AM.
Many organizations, including universities and professional associations, have produced a wide range of personalized awards, trophies, and give-aways, such as flash drives and bottle openers. Eventually, the broader automotive industry will use AM for production, but it is still too costly for mainstream parts at companies such as Audi, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota. These and other auto companies are carefully evaluating systems, materials, and costs, and planning for the day when they can adopt AM for the production of some types of parts. With recent advances in AM, this day could come much sooner than later.
AM systems for printed electronics have been commercialized by Optomec, Nano Dimension, and others. A time will come when it will be possible to print electronics into the interior of an enclosure, rather than designing an enclosure to accommodate a printed circuit board. However, this will likely develop years in the future. It is currently possible to print conductive materials for antennas, sensors, and strain gages, even inside the walls of a part. This is currently the business opportunity and “low-hanging fruit” for the printing of electronics.
The AM industry is faced with many challenges and obstacles. Near the top is the cost of industrial machines and materials for production applications. In the recent past, it has been simply too expensive to use AM for the production of most parts and products. This is expected to change as more patents expire, novel methods are developed and commercialized, and competition drives prices downward.
A major challenge is an understanding of design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) in the current workforce. Wohlers Associates estimates that far less than 1% of practicing engineers and designers that need to understand DfAM have the appropriate knowledge and skills. If a company wants to manufacture with AM today, it is usually necessary to apply strong methods of DfAM, such as consolidating many parts into a lesser number of parts. In building a strong business case, it is also important to design parts that use less material and are lighter in weight—strengths of AM, yet relatively few people have the experience or tools, or even a basic understanding that would allow them to do so.
Another big challenge is the necessary know-how and labor involved in postprocessing parts after they have been removed from the AM machine’s build chamber. For metal parts, as many as 10 or more distinct and often expensive postprocessing steps may be required. If many of these steps are not streamlined or automated in some way, the expensive labor involved can make it next to impossible to justify the cost of using AM for production.
Companies that have successfully adopted AM have invested a lot in postprocessing methods and automation, but they do not share this intellectual property with others for competitive reasons. A database of methods and know-how is not available, so most companies must shoulder the burden of developing these methods on their own. This is expensive and time-consuming, especially with so much trial and error involved.
As the AM industry expands, so does the need for people with experience and special skills in AM. As companies increasingly manufacture parts with the technology, the need for knowledgeable and experienced people will magnify. In fact, Wohlers Associates believes that the demand for these people is beginning to exceed the supply. Educational institutions are adding programs in AM and are helping to meet some of this demand. However, most graduates are without strong DfAM knowledge and postprocessing skills—two of the most important areas of expertise needed by the AM industry.
A major challenge is an understanding of design for additive manufacturing in the current workforce.
People are needed with experience in 3D content creation, design optimization, and design and process analysis and simulation. Also required are people who can serve in applications development, R&D, materials science, process controls, and part inspection. Needed are people in IT, software development, cloud services, materials handling, and automation. The AM industry also requires people focused on creating quality education and training programs, part-building services, AM machine operations and maintenance, sales and sales support, and finance and investment.
The development of the AM industry in the recent past has been fascinating to some. Organizations of all types are scrambling to determine how they fit in. Many have invested impressive sums, while others are waiting on the sidelines, hoping to enter but are unsure how to or when. Countless start-up companies, new businesses, and business models are developing worldwide. With AM’s strong health and favorable outlook, a number of them will survive and thrive. Major corporations with big brands are taking risks, although some will stumble along the way. Regardless, it has never been a more exciting time to be a part of the AM industry. The next 12–18 months are expected to come with scores of new and unexpected announcements, so stay tuned.
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