What’s behind the boom in 3D printing?

Terry Wohlers, President and founder of the consultancy Wohlers Associates, has been tracking the growth of the additive manufacturing industry since the 1980s. Brent Balinski spoke to Wohlers, ahead of the expert’s visit here, about some of the major recent trends. 

At expos and elsewhere: 3D printing is huge

You can ask just about anyone and they will tell you additive manufacturing/3D printing has never been more popular.

Or you can ask Terry Wohlers, the founder of the consultancy Wohlers Associates, if you want the definitive answer.

His firm has been publishing the annual Wohlers Report for 19 consecutive years. The report is regarded as the most comprehensive, most reliable collection of information and analysis on the global market for the industry.

“Last week there was the first ever 3D printing event… the Inside 3D Printing event in Seoul,” Wohlers told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“And about 5,000 people attended.”

Wohlers – whose seminar on 3D printing at an expo in 1988 led to his very first consulting client – says that a trade show two or three years ago would see nowhere near the same amount of interest.

“If you were to offer an event on the subject, if you had 200 people together you’d be feeling pretty good about it,” he said.

Released in May, Wohlers Report 2014 – featuring input from 29 system manufacturers, 82 service providers and 70 expert authors and contributors – estimated that the global industry grew to $US 3.07 billion last year. It increased 34.9 per cent in 2013, following bumper growth in the two previous years.

“For an industry that’s more than 25 years to see that kind of growth, 32 per cent growth on average for the last three years – I don’t think you can find another industry that we’re seeing that kind of growth,” he said.

Wohlers will be a speaker at next month’s Inside 3D Printing series event, making its Australian debut in Melbourne. It will be one of more than 110 keynotes he has made, including at the very first installment of the series in New York in 2013.

According to his research, there’s a number of reasons behind the explosion in both general attention and investment in additive manufacturing.

This includes the confusion between what personal, desktop printers can do (leading to some believing an entry-level machine can do what a production system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars can do) due to sometimes-inaccurate, sensationalist reporting. And yes, the last thing includes some of the coverage around 3D printing guns.

The role of quality journalism has been important too, with Wohlers citing attention from The Economist as very important for raising awareness, starting with its now famous “Print Me A Stradivarius” front-page story in February 2011.

Other reasons have included the US government’s focus on the technology – such as America Makes, an additive manufacturing hub in Youngstown, Ohio –  which has prompted other countries to try and keep up.

“America Makes, which is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute [was important],” explained Wohlers.

“In Washington the White House started this program in 2012 – and we’re very much a part of it by the way, so I’m a little biased – [and] we think that it was something that other countries learned about and so they thought ‘if the United States is investing in this to the level they are, we need to do the same thing’.”

Metal mania

Some of the areas that stood out in 2013’s boom year from 3D printing include personal, low-cost machines (up 104 per cent), and more interestingly from an industrial point of view, metal additive manufacturing systems (up 75.8 per cent, with 348 machines sold worldwide).  

“Mainly the medical and aerospace industries are beginning to embrace this technology for actual production,” he explained. “That’s where the sales are beginning to come from.”

From dental copings to hip sockets, the customisability of additive manufacturing and the biocompatibility of titanium – out of which 90,000 acetabular cups have been made – have helped drive demand for metal printers.

Possibilities including lighter, stronger plane components, saving fuel, consolidating parts and better performance are also driving investment in additive manufacturing by aerospace companies. Examples include Airbus, currently testing new brackets for its A350, and GE Aviation’s high-profile LEAP Engine project.

According to GE, the LEAP will enter service in 2016, on three models of planes including the Airbus A320neo. Each engine will include 19 additively manufactured nozzles, which the company says will be five times as durable and require only a fifth of the number of brazes and welds.

Wohlers considers the overall development in metal 3D printing particularly exciting, with great advancements made in the mechanical properties of parts.

“In some ways metals have come further in 10 years than the plastics have come in 25 years,” he offered.

What’s the story here?

In Australia in particular, investment has been nothing like what’s been seen elsewhere.

“Australia didn’t make the chart,” said Wohlers.

“It’s a little bit too small of a segment. It’s not one of the major countries to adopt the technology.”

According to Wohlers Associates figures, since 1988 – the year 3D printing was commercialised – Australia’s investment in professional-grade production units represents 1.4 per cent of the total sold.

In terms of metal additive manufacturing, the veteran consultant believes that the country has great potential with titanium, especially if the processing of the material can be made cheaper.

Australia has the biggest deposits of titanium ore in the world, followed by South Africa.

As is the case in other areas – such as natural gas – a case could be made for value-adding to the raw material the country possesses in abundance for a better return. Especially when, as for example with local ultrafine merino wool, the material is processed and then imported back to Australia.

The CSIRO has previously pointed out, processing one per cent of local ore that is exported and creating high-value products with this would be 100 times more sustainable and create the same value.

Similarly, Wohlers believes that a “cradle to the grave” approach to the metal, using additive manufacturing, is worth examining.

“Particularly for medical products, aerospace products, which are two areas where Australia’s quite strong in, and in consumer products too,” said Wohlers.

“And especially if the price can be driven down on the production of the material.”

A final word on education

The possibility of designing parts with construction that was simply impossible beforehand – assuming that a part needed to be created so it was possible to mould or be fashioned through subtractive methods – is one of the major benefits of 3D printing, regardless of the material.

“You have far more freedom, more flexibility, so you can consolidate parts digitally,” he said.

“Because these machines don’t really care about how complex a part is, for the most part.”

As other experts on the technology often point out, one of the obstacles to getting the most out of additive manufacturing is getting across to potential users what’s possible.  

This includes reducing part counts through consolidation, cutting down weight through lattice and mesh structures on the insides of objects, and creating unconventional shapes.

Of note is designing with topology optimisation, “letting mathematics decide where to put the material to optimise the strength to weight ratio” explained Wohlers.

This process was used on the Airbus bracket, mentioned above.

“The part looks very bionic in its shape, and yet it gets the job done,” said Wohlers.

“It’s using the minimal amount of material but at sufficient strength to ensure that it won’t deform or break.”

(Incidentally, Wohlers is also an author of CAD textbooks. His popular Applying Autocad is in its 20th edition.)

In the future, overcoming the old idea of “design for manufacturing” will be easier, but there’s work to be done.

“The challenge, of course, is to educate and train designers and engineers to understand what are the capabilities and limitations of these processes,” he explained.

“There are so many different 3D printer processes out there, it’s going to take time, especially for the older, veteran designers.

“I like to think that the younger generation through our schools and universities we’ll teach them and fortunately we have a lot of teaching institutions buying equipment and providing learning opportunities for students, but is it enough and are they doing it well? So that is a very big challenge.”

Wohlers will be presenting the opening keynote address – The Next Frontier in 3D Printing – at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo on July 9 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. The event runs on July 9 and 10. Click here for registration details.


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