The additive manufacturing market, also known as 3D printing, is set to grow from around $7 billion today to around $12.5 billion by 2018, a new report finds. The technology is providing a whole new means to create complex designs – enabling companies to create new geometries and leverage more efficient materials. Barriers to wide scale adoption remain however, including scalability, talent shortfalls and material costs.
For tens of thousands of years, humans have been chipping away at things to create shapes that provide a range of everyday functions – from arrow heads to tables and chairs. The art of casting, once key metals were discovered, created an additional means of forming objects. In the late 80s, the development of laser and computer-aided design functions has delivered a new means of creating forms – known as additive manufacture (AM). In the AM process, rather than whittling away or casting, objects are built up by bonding and layering material. An object designed on a computer is sent to an AM machine which can step-wise add materials – including plastic, metal, living cells – to form ever more complex objects.
Today, the Am market is still tiny in comparison to the total manufacturing market, at around 0.3% of the more than $10 trillion market. In a new report from Bain & Company, titled ‘Five questions to shape a winning 3-D printing strategy’, the consulting firm explores the current benefits offered by 3-D printing and the market growth, as well as the barriers, of the technology – together with its own key recommendations for companies.
AM Market potential
3D printing and AM technology provides a range of benefits over traditional manufacturing formats. Almost any shape or structure can be created, with few – outside scale – geometric constraints and little marginal costs. Certain structures, such as those resembling bamboo, lattice or trabeculae (thin columns of bone) – are simply not feasible with traditional manufacturing. Through AM, a whole new set of objects can be manufactured, including the printing of cell lines to create organs, as well as the printing of geometric forms that reduce the weight of, for instance, aircraft parts – in one instance saving 40% of the components' normal fuel cost.
The technology, in addition, provides considerable flexibility to the manufacturing process without inefficiencies – like offering a short setup time and lending itself to just-in-time production and low inventories. For the design and development of new parts, AM provides a “complexity for free” characteristic, offering a cost advantage for the development and creation of complex parts, especially for very complex parts with low volumes, as the technology creates not merely a cost advantage but also provides the possibility.
The wide range of applications for AM, coupled with demand for new materials to solve a range of issues – such as aircraft weight and new biotech – has seen considerable growth within the industry in recent years. Between 2009 and 2013, the industry booked a CAGR of 30.2% as the market jumped from $1.1 billion to $3.1 billion. Between 2013 and 2016, the market is projected to increase to around $7 billion. Strong growth is set to continue, with the 3D printing market projected to increase significantly in the coming two years, jumping at an annualised rate of 33.6% to a total of $12.5 billion by 2018.
While the technology has considerable promise, a number of barrier remain for wide scale adoption within a range of businesses. The technology, as it stands, does not provide a means for scalable production – the machines themselves are relatively expansive, while the production rate per machine is limited by a range of factors – including material type. Traditional finishing is still required for many parts, which limits efficiency gains, production flexibility and lead time. Many of the materials used in the process are tightly controlled by machine OEMs, resulting in higher costs and lower flexibility. As it stands there are also no major standards or manufacturing guidelines as yet developed regarding the objects produced by AM. The final barrier cited by the consultancy is a lack of AM talent, particularly with regard to the creation of objects.
A number of these barriers, the consulting firm argues, will be overcome with advancement to the arena. Material costs are set to decrease as adoption increases and the market expands – while new laser technologies and machine designs may increase the potential for throughput. Standards are in the process of being developed, while increased demand for talent is likely to see businesses and design schools improve their focus on supporting adoption. Once customers demand better AM systems for lower prices, suppliers will innovate affordable solutions and patents will expire – and as a result the competitive advantage of 3D printing may reshape many industries.