A survey of 100 top manufacturers revealed that two-thirds are using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping and others for production or custom parts.
The majority of the companies, however, are still experimenting with the technology to determine how they can apply it to their production processes.
Only one-third of the companies surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said they are not implementing 3D printing in some way.
As 3D printing techniques evolve to handle multiple materials and faster processes, they will find use beyond rapid prototyping, PwC stated in a news release.
Of the companies surveyed by PwC, almost 30% said they were experimenting with the technology; 25% said they were using it for prototyping only; 10% said they were using it for both prototyping and production; 3% said they were building products that couldn't be made with traditional methods and 1% were using it for final products or components.
The global market for 3D printers and services is expected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion in 2018, which represents a compound annual growth rate of 45.7%.
Lux Research has predicted 3D printing will quadruple over the next decade to $12 billion.
The sale of 3D printers alone will be worth $3.2 billion, while another $2 billion in revenue will come from thermo polymers and other formulated materials used for printing. The lion's share of the market -- $7 billion -- will come from the value of the products produced by 3D printers, according to Lux Research.
"Despite these trends, the 3D printing industry faces challenges," the PwC report said. "Rapid prototyping will remain important but is not the game-changer that will expand the technology into high-volume use cases. The industry should pivot to printing more fully functional and finished products or components in volumes that greatly outnumber the volumes of prototypes produced."
PwC pointed out several technology trends that will expedite 3D printing's adoption, including an emerging class of mid-level 3D printers that offer features traditionally seen only in higher-end systems.
Printer speeds are increasing across the product spectrum; at least one high-end system under development could print up to 500 times faster than today's top machines, PwC stated. For example, the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has partnered with machine tool-maker Cincinnati Incorporated, to build 3D printers that are 200 to 500 times faster and capable of printing parts 10 times larger than is possible today with mainstream market machines.
The options on desktop printers are also expanding. For example, today there are desktop stereolithography printers from Virginia-based Old World Laboratories (OWL) that offer fine resolution printing (down to .1 micron), as well as consumer-grade machines from 3D Systems and XYZPrinting with self-leveling platforms, multi-material printing, and multi-color printing.
And key patents are about to expire, a development likely to hasten the pace of innovation," PwC stated.
The patents expiring this year have to do with the laser sintering, a 3D printing technique that fuses metal powders with the heat of a laser, the company explained in an email to Computerworld.
"When patents expired in 2009 on the [fused deposition modeling] method, the open source printers and desktop... printers came into the market and created the surge in interest in 3D printing that we have today," PwC wrote. "As [stereolithography also known as SLA 3D printing] patents have expired over the past year, desktop SLA printers have come into the market."
PwC pointed to makers of hearing aids and dental braces, such as Invisalign, as current examples of how 3D printing has been used in production and not just prototyping.
For braces, a dentist scans a patient's teeth into a computer, and those computer specifications are used to print out the clear braces. "As new braces are supplied regularly, this is perfect for Invisalign and its customers," Invisalign states on its Website.
Of Ford Motor Co.'s five 3D prototyping centers, three are in the U.S. and two are in Europe. At its Dearborn Heights, Mich. facility, 14 different industrial 3D printers turn out 20,000 parts a year. A single print run on one machine can create anywhere from a few parts to hundreds.
General Electric this year plans to use 3D printing to create complex metal parts for its next-generation GE9X and Leap models engine.
Commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus saves millions of dollars in parts production and fuel costs by shaving off the gross weight of an aircraft through 3D printing. Its vision is far more radical than parts, though, and someday it plans to completely print a 3D plane, according to Curtis Carson, head of systems integration, at the Airbus Centre of Competence Manufacturing Engineering.
By using 3D printing's "additive manufacturing" process, versus the traditional "subtractive manufacturing" process involved in lathing machine parts, waste materials drop from 90% to between 5% and 10%, Carson said.