3D printing moves from prototypes to production

As market quadruples to $12B in 10 years, it'll increasingly be used to make complex parts in a variety of industries, from manufacturing to electronics

The 3D printing market is expected to quadruple over the next decade to $12 billion, moving from its main use today of creating prototypes to the most complex of production parts, according to Lux Research.

3D printing, which has been around for 30 years, has mainly been used to create product prototypes. That's because product designs are easily manipulated in computer-aided design (CAD) software before being sent off to a printer.

Because of its slow speed, 3D printing will likely never be used to manufacture tens of thousands of anything, but the printers are expected to double or triple in speed over the next decade.

"You won't 3D print a Ford F150 truck or 400,000 screws, but can manufacture jet engines or customized orthopedics for patients," said Anthony Vicari, a Lux Research associate and the lead author of a report on 3D printing's future. "You may be able to save manufacturing costs and reduce the prices of end parts."

3D printing
This 3D printed gear design displays how a working part can be made in a single print run. (Image: Lucas Mearian)

For example, a large online community has already grown around 3D printed prosthetics. Customized prosthetic legs and arms that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture can be made for pennies on the dollar today.

For example, Leon McCarthy has no fingers on his left hand because of a congenital birth defect. Until recently, doctors told McCarthy's family not to even consider a custom-engineered prosthesis due to the high cost -- $10,000 to $80,000, depending on quality.

McCarthy's father, however, partnered with a local teacher and the two found plans for a prosthetic hand online, which they were able to produce for about $5 in materials.

3D printers are adept at creating complex parts far faster than traditional manufacturing techniques and they can do it in a single run without the need for tools, dies and lathes. Because of that, 3D printing will be used to make working devices for the aerospace, medical, automotive, architecture, electronics and even consumer products industry.

3D printing
This portable power drill body was printed by a Stratasys 3D printer using three types of thermo polymers, each with different composition -- from the hard shell to a soft, rubbery grip. (Image: Lucas Mearian).

"Consumer uses of 3D printing attract most of the headlines, but industrial uses, from molds and tooling to actual production parts, are quietly having the greatest impact," Vicari said. "Where I see most room for improvement is in the range of materials that can be used to 3D print, multi-material printing and improved design methods."

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 worth -- will come from the value of the products produced by 3D printers, according to Lux Research.

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