3D printing industry consultant, analyst, author, and speaker Terry Wohlers is president of Wohlers Associates Inc. and is well known as a leading authority on additive manufacturing. The frequently referenced Wohlers Report 2013 is regarded as the foremost publication on 3D printing analysis and trends worldwide.
In the following Q&A, Mr. Wohlers shares his insight on the future of 3D printing with readers of Engineering.com.
Engineering.com: Thank you for sharing your expertise regarding future trends in additive manufacturing.
With the global 3D printing market having expanded to $2.2 billion last year and your prediction that the market will approach $6 billion by 2017, in what geographic regions do you believe the greatest growth will take place over the next 3-4 years?
Wohlers: Growth in 3D printing and additive manufacturing (we use the terms interchangeably) is occurring in most regions around the world. Some governments are beginning to invest aggressively in it. We believe the most growth will occur in Asia in general, but China in particular. The central, provincial, and city governments in many parts of China are excited about its potential and are launching initiatives that could spur substantial growth.
Engineering.com: Where do you see China currently in the additive manufacturing industry, and do you think they might be a threat to future growth of US-based 3D printing companies?
Wohlers: China lacks experience in 3D printing compared to the U.S. and Europe. However, Chinese universities have funded research in additive manufacturing technologies for many years. Also, at least six companies are manufacturing industrial AM systems and hundreds are installed and operating in the country. We anticipate that Chinese 3D printer manufacturing companies will provide competition to those in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, although the impact has been minimal to date.
Engineering.com: Where do you believe the lion’s share of growth will come from over the next 3-5 years as defined by total revenue generation, the personal desktop 3D printer market or the industrial/commercial end of the spectrum?
Wohlers: The vast majority of revenue from products and services will continue to come from industrial AM systems. As reported in Wohlers Report 2013, revenues from personal 3D printer sales for 2012 were only 6.5% of the total market for AM systems. So while the personal 3D printer market has grown very quickly in the past five years, it still small compared to the industrial systems.
AM will continue to transition to the production of parts that go into final products, and this will support growth in industrial system sales. An example of this transition comes from GE Aviation. Earlier this year, the company announced that fuel nozzles for its next-generation aircraft engine, the LEAP engine, will be manufactured on 3D printers. With 19 nozzles per engine and the production of 1,700 engines per year, the company expects to produce more than 32,000 very complex metal parts by AM annually. We expect to see more production applications like this in the coming years.
Engineering.com: What materials segment(s) of additive manufacturing do you believe will show the highest growth rates- plastics, basic metals, high grade metals like titanium, ceramics?
Wohlers: We believe that materials are key to the future success of 3D printing, particularly for production applications. Compared to conventional manufacturing, the selection of materials for 3D printing is limited. We will see growth in all the material segments you’ve listed.
Today, industrial AM systems are producing high-grade metal parts with properties that match or exceed the properties of cast metal parts. In the future, we expect to see a greater variety of metal alloys available.
Progress in plastic materials has been steady, although slower than some users would prefer. A thermoplastic polyurethane was developed last year, as well as a couple of new nylon powders and a nylon filament. We’ll continue to see this type of growth in material selection and quality. Major materials and chemicals companies are looking at AM seriously, so this could impact the number of new materials in the future.
Engineering.com: What current or developing technologies do you believe have an advantage in the future of additive manufacturing of high grade metals used in aerospace, defense, and orthopedic implants?
Wohlers: Typically, AM can’t compete well with conventional methods in high-volume manufacturing of simple parts. The strength of AM is that it can manufacture very complex parts that cannot be made any other way, and that it can cost-effectively produce parts in low volumes, because there is no need for a tool such as a mold.
When we discuss the advantages of AM, design and redesign is a very important part. With AM, it is possible to consolidate many individual parts of an assembly (as many as 20 or more) into a single, complex part, eliminating part numbers, inventory, assembly, labor, and inspection. It is possible to redesign parts with relatively thin skins that include internal lattice/mesh structures instead of solid material throughout, which can substantially reduce the amount of material, weight, and build time. It is also possible to redesign parts using topology optimization—a method of letting mathematics decide where to put the material to optimize the strength to weight ratio. In some cases, the amount of material and weight has been reduced by more than 50% using these techniques.
Instead of building a part that is identical to the current design made by conventional methods of manufacturing, AM allows us to redesign that part, making it lighter and stronger. Without redesigning the part, AM often does not have an advantage over conventional methods and would probably cost more in time and money.
Engineering.com: What challenges lie ahead for additive manufacturing as the industry advances from prototyping to large scale manufacturing, and do you see solutions to those challenges being developed presently or in the near term?
Wohlers: System reliability and process repeatability are challenges, especially when using AM for manufacturing. System manufacturers are addressing these challenges with real-time process monitoring and control software, but a lot of work remains. The current limitation in build speed and maximum part size are challenges, too. Manufacturers are developing systems with larger build volumes and methods that increase throughput.
Another challenge is the unprecedented amount of media attention and hype we’ve seen in the past year surrounding the technology. It seems as if some people believe 3D printing is a superior manufacturing method just because it’s 3D printing. We know of course that this is not true. 3D printing is a viable alternative to conventional methods in some cases, but not most at the present time. All opportunities for manufacturing must be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Engineering.com: Thank you again for sharing your expertise with our readers.