How 3D printing could change your company

A report from UPS and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) has pinned a $21 billion value on the 3D printing industry by 2020 – and it will be used for a lot more than prototyping devices, it said. The market, which currently stands at $7.3 billion, will increasingly support the manufacture of production parts, according to the document, 3D Printing: The Next Revolution in Industrial Manufacturing (PDF).

There is still plenty of headroom in the 3D printing market, particularly in the industrial sector, according to Ark Invest. The company, which identifies and invests in emerging technology areas, runs its own exchange traded fund (ETF) in 3D printing companies. The technology has made its mark in prototyping, according to its industrial innovation analyst Tasha Kenney.

“Because 3D prototyping makes something so much cheaper and faster,” she said. “You can print something out in a couple of hours, versus creating a mould, waiting for weeks for that to come through, and then sending it out to a supplier and getting parts back. It cuts the initial prototyping cycle down, and it cuts the entire design cycle down.”

The other upside for 3D prototyping is that it shifts the power to the designer, she argued. 3D printers are able to create far more complex objects than would otherwise be available, allowing companies to be more innovative when creating components.

Prototyping may be the most popular application for 3D printers today, but this will change in the future as they begin to apply the techniques to production components. The production of functional parts currently represents 29 per cent of uses for 3D-printed goods, but 3D-printed goods represented under 1% of all manufactured products in the US in 2014, the report said.

The action will mostly be in short-run production of specialized parts. Caterpillar, which already uses over 80 3D printers throughout its business, opened its own 3D Printing and Innovation Accelerator this month in an attempt to move beyond simple prototyping processes.  The Accelerator will make it easier to design pieces specifically for 3D printing, seeding short-run production capabilities that will help its partners to reduce stock by enabling them to maintain ‘virtual inventories’ of parts that can be printed on demand.

The uptake of 3D-printing in the industrial sector is also driving innovation in materials. Companies are creating new types of 3D printing medium, with metals now a mainstay of the high-end 3D printing market. Transparency Market Research has said that the market for 3D printing materials will grow faster than the market for 3D printing hardware. Electronics and consumer products are likely to remain the primary segment, said the report, which predicts a compound annual growth rate of 17 per cent between 2014 and 2020.

HP, which will soon unveil a lower-cost, faster version of its industrial-level Multi Jet Fusion printer, is preparing an open market for partners creating their own materials for its printers.


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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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