3D printing – revolution or mere puffery?

3D printing is everywhere confidently trumpeted as the technological game changer that will return mass production to the West from its recent Chinese sabbatical.

Alex Sheppard, Innovation Consultant at Inventya, notes that analysts cite the burgeoning growth of the 3D industry as a “creative destructor” which will revolutionise manufacturing. This is said to be the very latest “industrial mutation… that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within[1]”. Yet the hyperbole of these repeated claims perhaps sets the industry’s sights too high. So, how can we see through the hype?

Wohler’s recently reported that the 3D sector grew by 34.9% in 2013, reaching a global value of $3.1 billion. In addition it has had a 16% 10 year compound annual growth rate, with the consensus being that future growth could be explosive despite a difficult 2014[2]. However, it is important to bear in mind that the total number of 3D printers sold worldwide last year was only 158,000.  To put that into some context, the 2D inkjet printing market was worth $51.7bn in the same year. In short, 3D printing is still a fledgling industry heavily influenced by the hype surrounding its future potential, as opposed to the realistic capabilities of these devices over the next few years.

In fact, it is fairly evident that 3D printing is unlikely to threaten traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, owing to the inherent weaknesses of the production method. It uses a layering build process and generally works at slower speeds relative to production using moulds.

Despite these issues, 3D printing is going to have a huge impact on both industrial and domestic markets, just perhaps not by way of a total manufacturing metamorphosis. Already the aerospace, healthcare and automotive industries have seen potential in 3D printing beyond prototyping, owing to the enormous customisation opportunities the technology allows. These devices will have a place on factory floors but will not usher in an industrial upheaval – but rather a conglomeration of methods and will lie at the forefront of low volume, high mark-up, heavily customised products, which consumers will increasingly demand. Further, the growth of desktop printers of late highlights the desire to supplant the product creation typically the preserve of manufacturers and start making highly customised items in the home. This is the kind of mass market adoption, which will truly augment the industry’s prospects.

Interestingly, the highest growth sector of the 3D printing market is that of desktop, consumer marketed 3D printers. With the expiration of a large number of significant patents, there has been an explosion in the growth of sub-$5,000 3D printers. 116,000 devices were sold in 2013; more than in the previous four years combined. Many have sounded the warning caveat emptor in response to the notorious unreliability of domestic 3D printers, but these developmental growing pains are not dissimilar to those found during the evolution of desktop computers.

This is a very exciting and fast moving industry and it is not unrealistic to expect that in the next few years these consumer marketed devices are going to reach the mass market in a big way. Prices are dropping rapidly below the $1,000 mark, the software is becoming more accessible to first time users and the reliability of the machines is steadily approaching the success rate consumers expect from modern electronic devices.

These devices are a boon to any small business in a creative industry as they restore a tactile lustre to modern design processes. They can offer significant benefits in the prototyping process, quickly and cheaply producing something which can inform design or be pitched to investors without the need to pay for expensive moulds. Global shipments of 3D printers are estimated to rocket from an expected 217,350 in 2015 to over 2.3 million by 2018, with end-users’ spending rising in tandem from $1.6bn to $13.4bn[3]. As appropriate design software becomes more intuitive, it will not be uncommon in the coming years to find 3D printers sat beside their 2D cousins in offices around the world.

We recently assisted a young start-up looking to enter this growing industry with a multifunctional device capable of both scanning and printing 3D objects. This taps into an emergent trend in the industry to combine the different functions required by design processes such as printing and engraving in single devices, thereby increasing efficiency. We noted that big drivers in the market include demand for reduced device costs, and incorporating metal as an accessible material. The market for metal printers has grown by more than 75% in one year alone[4] and it is predicted that by 2018, the market for desktop 3D printers will be worth $1.79bn[5]. While a number of “all-in-one” devices are being released, they all suffer at present from the inconsistencies that plague the printing capabilities of most devices. There is much room for improvement in terms of the quality of appropriate software which can cope with the demands of 3D design in a user friendly manner.

Inventya Ltd works with bioscience, healthcare, advanced materials, high value manufacturing and environmental technology customers, providing a full range of go-to-market research & commercialisation services including securing R&D funding. To discover what Inventya can do for your business growth, contact us on 01925 607 191 or by email info@inventya.com

[1]Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, 1942