Wohlers Report 2016 and the Billion Dollar 3D Printing Industry
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 20, 2016 |
ENGINEERING.com reviews Wohlers Report 2016, a compendium of 3D printing information.

It’s been called the “bible” of the 3D printing industry. Remove the theological reference and it might be described as the encyclopedia of 3D printing. However one refers to it, the Wohlers Report has become one of the most essential publications associated with additive manufacturing (AM).

Wohlers Report is now in its 21st year. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Associates.)
Wohlers Report is now in its 21st year. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Associates.)

After surveying 51 industrial 3D printer manufacturers and 98 service providers, totaling 149 companies and over 100,000 users and customers, 3D printing consulting firm Wohlers Associates has released Wohlers Report 2016. As with previous reports, this edition proves to be a key text for understanding the state of 3D printing. 

This is true not only for newcomers to the industry, but also for those already familiar with the technology. It does this by providing a comprehensive background around 3D printing, relaying the most recent developments, and hinting at the future of the technology to come.

3D Printing Past

Every issue of the Wohlers Report begins with a state-of-the-industry section that provides a snapshot of recent events related to the technology, how the technology is being used, and what will be included in the report before going into a substantial overview of 3D printing processes and materials. 

This section will provide any novice with everything they need to know about 3D printing, with a breakdown of every type of technology and the materials currently available to print with. Perhaps more importantly, it also sheds light on the post-processing steps involved with the technology, which are necessary with all 3D printing platforms to render printed parts usable in a functional setting.

All of this is followed by an extensive catalog of every major manufacturer in the industry, listing all of the companies’ latest news from the previous year and up to the month leading up to the report’s publication. If you happened to miss a development from one of these firms since last year’s edition was released, you’ll catch it here. Newcomers to 3D printing will be also become acquainted with all of the key players in the industry. 

3D Printing Present

As the industry is constantly evolving, not every company will be found in the report—specifically manufacturers of low-cost, desktop 3D printers—as these firms are constantly appearing and disappearing on a regular basis. However, if you follow the industry closely, you may be surprised at just how up to date and thorough this section is. You may also catch some companies you weren’t even aware existed. 

For instance, this year’s edition does not cover Anisoprint, a small Russian company that recently made news for its work on developing a carbon fiber 3D printer that will be sent to the International Space Station. At the same time, it does include a firm from Singapore named Structo, which has developed digital light processing 3D printers that can print at a quick rate of 1.4 in (36 mm) per hour, due to the use of LED lights and “liquid crystal mask technology.”

The report also details overall industry growth, including the global market shares of various leaders, unit sales, stock performances and more. It doesn’t just do this for the current year, but contextualizes much of this information in time, tracking the number of units sold by 3D Systems from 1988 to 2015, for instance. Want to know how many machines Helisys sold before it went caput in 2000? The report tells you: 377.

Wohlers Associates estimates that over 278,000 desktop 3D printers (those priced under $5,000) were sold globally in 2015. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Associates.)
Wohlers Associates estimates that over 278,000 desktop 3D printers (those priced under $5,000) were sold globally in 2015. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Associates.)

Later sections go into thorough detail about the benefits of the technology, particularly how 3D printing end-use parts are increasingly changing the way that manufacturing is performed. Those familiar with the technology already know the freedom of design, production flexibility, reduction of inventory and other benefits that 3D printing provides. 

Due to the high price of industrial 3D printers, however, these advantages may not necessarily be well-received by manufacturers who are mainly concerned with the bottom line. An extensive cost-benefit analysis performed by Zach Simkin and Annie Wang of Senvol outlines exactly how and in which cases 3D printing can actually be a money-saving investment in the long run.

For those actually considering the adoption of AM for final part production, this section is key to understanding the differences between a cost-effective 3D printing use case and those instances in which AM may not be the most cost-effective technology for production. 

The differences are not cut and dried, which is why the report covers all of the relevant variables in great detail, such as the number of parts that will be made or whether or not 3D printing would result in improved functionality not possible with other technologies. As actual parts are used for the various areas of this section, the results have great real-world significance for manufacturers.

All of this data is further contextualized through an examination of 3D printing developments continent by continent and country by country, giving readers a global perspective of how the 3D printing industry is evolving collectively. The current state of that evolution is an industry that surpassed $5.1 billion in value in 2015. 

3D Printing Future

As interesting as the state of the industry is, perhaps the most fascinating sections of the report are those related to the future of AM. 3D printing solar cells with a combination of inkjetting and sintering, and the development of a cold spray 3D printing process for metal AM in space are just two developments taking place at research labs in the U.S. and Ireland, respectively. 

In addition to the countless research endeavors being pursued worldwide, the report also examines the work being performed by large companies, such as Airbus and HP, coming to the conclusion that 3D printing could one day become a $640 billion market, if it captures only 5 percent of the $12.8 trillion manufacturing industry market share.

If that’s the case and the Wohlers Report is considered the “bible” or even encyclopedia of 3D printing, then this holy book might just provide a glimpse of what that potential multibillion industry is all about.

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