The 3D printing boom continues

The overall appetite for additive manufacturing continues in all segments of the market. Brent Balinski spoke to long-time industry consultant Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates. Wohlers Report 2015 was released in April, the firm’s 20th anniversary edition.

At enterprise and consumer levels: popularity continues to increase

There’s been a fairly recent change of mood at many big companies, according to Terry Wohlers.

According to Wohlers, founder of leading consultancy Wohlers Associates – which advises a long list of multi-billion dollar companies – those at the top are now pushing to invest in additive manufacturing.

“So that’s quite different from most of the 27 years in the past where it’s been a bottom-up push, where you’ve got engineers, technicians and low-level managers going to upper management and saying ‘Hey, we need to invest in this,’” Wohlers told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

A lot has changed since Wohlers started consulting, when 3D printing was in its infancy and long before it was a must-have for manufacturers, schools, engineers and geeks.

The annual Wohlers Report, sometimes informally referred to as the “bible” of the industry, recently released its 20th anniversary version. The first edition calculated the global market for 3D printing (it uses the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing interchangeably) to be worth $US 295 million.

Wohlers Report 2015 – which features input from around the world from 40 makers of AM systems, 87 service providers and 78 co-authors – put the industry’s size at $US 4.103 billion. This was a healthy increase of 35.2 per cent (CAGR) for the year. CAGR for the last three years has averaged 33.8 per cent.

Wohlers tracks the “tipping point” for the technology back to 2012, a year in which there was widespread media attention and notable events including the opening of America Makes (the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a collaborative hub) in Ohio.

Additive manufacturing has boomed since, both at the consumer and industrial level.

At the desktop level, for example, 139,584 consumer (sub-$US5,000) printers sold, not far off doubling in a year. At the other end of the scale, production level machines continue to increase in sales, with 12,850 systems sold in 2014.

The last year’s developments

Since this magazine last spoke to Wohlers in June 2014, there have been countless announcements in the industry, feeding blogs and mainstream news sources eager to share news on the Next Big Thing in additive manufacturing.

Some of these are interesting to the veteran industry watcher, who cites start-up Voxel8, which creates PLA parts that include conductive silver ink, in this category.

Others perhaps don’t deserve the massive attention they’ve earned, such as Carbon3D (“Interesting, but it’s still very early in its development stage… It’s too soon to get overly excited about it.”)

However, he lists last October’s HP Multi Jet Fusion technology (slated for release next year) announcement as a potential game-changer for manufacturing. He has seen the machines in action twice and makes his enthusiasm clear.

The technology – a dual-carriage system which repeatedly lays out layers of thermoplastic and chemical agents – lives up to claims of being 10 times faster than sintering methods, said Wohlers, based on demonstrations he’d seen.

“The speed, colour, part quality, and strength, coupled with being able to control the material properties at the voxel level—are very impressive.” he added.

“And so I think that their competitors have their work cut out for them.”

Citing the company’s size, marketing and distribution muscle, and successful history with enterprise-level printers (of the 2D kind), Wohlers believes they are likely to make a big difference in the manufacturing world.

“They have a lot of experience with building these very large machines for industrial users,” he said.

“And that’s who they’re going after – not the consumer”.

On metal and market research

Last year also saw metal additive manufacturing machines continue grow in popularity. Sales by unit were up 54.7 per cent on the year before.

Within Australia there have been some acquisitions in recent years, but our share of the global total is small. According to a count by Stefan Ritt of SLM Solutions, there are 21 metal 3D printing systems operating in Australia.

Metal 3D printing is a relatively young industry and there have already been some successes in the biomedical area in Australia. These include reported world firsts, such as last October’s titanium heelbone replacement and the pioneering work at RMIT on Just In Time patient-specific bone implant surgery.

There has also been some work from Monash and Amaero in aerospace that has gained international attention.

However, there don’t appear to be any companies in Australia making production parts yet.

As he did in our last conversation, Wohlers said that there was a real opportunity to develop a supply chain from Australia’s world-leading deposits of titanium ore to end-use production in areas such as aerospace and medical applications.

“It’s a great opportunity but something that doesn’t happen quickly; it takes a lot of time and a lot of investment to grow these businesses,” he said.

Before we ended our interview, we sought his in-demand opinion on how much the global industry was likely to grow, and if recent, seemingly exuberant predictions from various market research firms could be trusted.

As overall interest from the market, the media and others rises, so does the number of reports on where things are heading.  

Wohlers Associates research tips the industry to be worth $US 7.3 billion globally in 2016, a $US 12.7 billion industry by 2018, and a $21.2 billion industry by 2020.

Citing 20 years of data and experience, he said a lot of Wohlers Report research was good enough to be relied on by some of the instant “experts” charging thousands and thousands per their own, sometimes rather derivative, reports on future growth.

“Nearly all of the market research companies that we know of have bought our report [laughs]. It’s kind of a coincidence that some of their numbers are very close to ours,” he said.

As 3D printing has grown, so have the number of sources charging a pretty penny for analysis on the industry’s predicted rate of expansion.

“I can’t even name any people at those companies because they’re all new to the industry,” said Wohlers.

“We’ve focused on 3D printing for 25+ years and then companies get into it and they’re suddenly experts. This is what happens when an industry gains so much attention and grows and matures, so from that standpoint, it’s good.”

Terry Wohlers returns as the keynote speaker at the Inside 3D printing event at Melbourne, running from May 26 – 29. For more information, click here.



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