3D Printing Is Poised to Continue Outpacing Growth of Traditional Manufacturing
Lane Long posted on May 08, 2018 | | 3763 views
Additive manufacturing is growing swiftly—more swiftly, notably, than the manufacturing sector as a whole. (Image courtesy of Digital Trends.)
Additive manufacturing is growing swiftly—more swiftly, notably, than the manufacturing sector as a whole. (Image courtesy of Digital Trends.)

3D printing, as you might have heard, is booming. By nearly every metric—unit sales, total manufacturing revenue, adoption levels—the technology has expanded rapidly in recent years. Still, additive manufacturing today accounts for a relatively small portion of the global manufacturing sector. The $14 trillion worldwide market remains dominated by more conventional methods, notably CNC machining and injection molding.

Because the world of 3D-printed materials is still largely binary, it’s helpful to consider the industry’s growth relative to these traditional techniques in dual terms. Polymer-based additive manufacturing naturally parallels injection molding as a production technique, since plastics comprise the vast majority of the market for mold-produced products. Metal 3D printing is easy to compare to CNC machining for the same reason, as metals dominate the machine-manufactured landscape. While the current $7.4 billion 3D printing industry constitutes a mere drop in the manufacturing bucket, a more nuanced look at the sector’s growth reveals promising signs about its path forward.

Growth Trends of Polymer 3D Printing Versus Injection Molding

A look at the growth of 3D printing system sales across all classes. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Report 2018.)
A look at the growth of 3D printing system sales across all classes. (Image courtesy of Wohlers Report 2018.)

Accounting for nearly 80 percent of the total market, polymers are by far the most commonly 3D-printed materials today. After a period of stagnation in the early 2010s, the market has grown rapidly in recent years. Sales of industrial-class polymer printers jumped significantly in 2017—a clear reflection of 3D printing’s increasing relevance in production at scale. Moreover, unit sales across all classes have seen incredible progress over the past four years, leaping from just over 100,000 units shipped in 2014 to almost 500,000 last year. In monetary terms, the growth has been even more significant. The total value of the polymer-based additive manufacturing sector grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 29 percent over the same period to reach $6 billion in 2017.

Injection-molded plastics have a much different market profile. This well-developed manufacturing technique accounted for $120 billion globally in 2014. That figure has risen in the intervening years, with most estimates pegging that figure at around $140 billion in 2017, for a CAGR of 5 percent. Sales of the machinery associated with injection molding, unlike plastic additive systems, are projected to stagnate, with some analyst projections anticipating a CAGR of under 2 percent through 2022.

Injection molding allows for high-volume production of simply designed products, such as this chair. (Image courtesy of SOFITEL.)
Injection molding allows for high-volume production of simply designed products, such as this chair. (Image courtesy of SOFITEL.)

Injection molding today provides a far cheaper option for volume production of standardized parts than additive manufacturing. As systems improve, though, it’s clear that plastic 3D printing is growing far more rapidly relative to its size. Polymer-based additive manufacturing has already proven its enormous utility for specific, highly customized applications. For example, 98 percent of all hearing aids produced worldwide are now 3D printed. As these low-volume applications are increasingly complemented by industrial-scale production, polymer 3D printing will continue to grow at a rate that outstrips that of injection molding.

Growth Trends of Metal 3D Printing Versus CNC Machining

Nearly all of the non-polymer 3D printing market is made up of metals. While metal additive still trails plastics in terms of market size, that trend could be changing. Deep-pocketed new entrants into the space, like GE Additive, have helped fuel innovation and drive down costs. Over the past few years, those developments have brought more 3D-metal-printed applications into the realm of feasibility for manufacturers. Metal additive has already become indispensable in several niches, from fuel nozzles for jet engines to high-end car components.

The numbers support this narrative. In the past year alone, shipments of metal 3D printing systems increased by almost 80 percent year-over-year. That increase brought the CAGR of metal printing units to over 50 percent since 2014. In another measure of just how quickly this additive segment is growing, the Wohlers Report 2018 found that the number of firms producing industrial-class systems jumped from 97 to 135 last year, after nearly doubling in 2016. The marketplace is becoming crowded—a difficult thing for some individual firms, sure, but a positive development for fostering the innovation and competition that will propel the technology forward.

Metal-based additive manufacturing is ascending rapidly, as evidenced by the spike in unit sales in recent years.(Image courtesy of Wohlers Report 2018.)
Metal-based additive manufacturing is ascending rapidly, as evidenced by the spike in unit sales in recent years.(Image courtesy of Wohlers Report 2018.)

Like injection molding, CNC machining is a mature market that occupies a dominant position in global manufacturing. Estimates on the gross annual revenue generated by the technique vary widely, as it’s very difficult to quantify the percentage of end-use products that were CNC machined. It’s a safe bet, however, that the revenue generated by all CNC-machined products runs well into the trillions of dollars. Consider this: The global market for CNC machines themselves was valued at $60 billion in 2017, up from $51 billion 4 years earlier. Forecasters project that the market will grow at a healthy clip of around 7 percent annually in the medium term.

These fairly robust figures still pale in comparison to the expected growth rates of metal additive manufacturing over the same periods. CNC machining is not an industry that is dying or being displaced by any means. The takeaway from this comparison, rather, is that metal-based 3D printing is set to expand at a faster rate than the established technology over the short-to medium-term time frame. Indeed, it may be set to expand more quickly than any other manufacturing subsector going forward.

Additive Manufacturing at an Industrial Scale in 2018 and Beyond

Given the impressive growth figures of both polymer- and metal-based additive manufacturing, it’s natural to wonder whether the technology will take market share away from established methods like injection molding and CNC machining. The likely scenario over the next decade is that the growth rates of additive and traditional manufacturing will not be inversely related. 3D printing, the data shows, will continue its remarkable growth. That growth is likely to come far more rapidly than what’s expected in injection molding or CNC machining, but it will not come at the expense of growth in these industries. The fact is that they aren’t directly competitive.

The value of 3D printing in large-scale production—where injection molding and CNC machining shine—remains limited. High material costs, small build capacities, and low speeds put additive manufacturing at a disadvantage when it comes to mass production. These short comings are being addressed, but in the medium term, at least, 3D printing isn’t likely to take much market share from traditional large-scale techniques. For now, additive manufacturing will sharply outpace traditional methods in terms of annualized growth, but this development will take place in two largely independent markets.

It’s not easy to forecast the market for a technology that is evolving and improving as quickly as 3D printing. Its capabilities will change over the next decade, and just how big a role additive manufacturing will come to play at end state is yet to be determined. What is perfectly clear, however, is that the curve is steeply positive. If some current problems are mitigated, there’s virtually no limit to the addressable manufacturing market that 3D printing could seize.


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