Low-cost 3D printers driving massive growth

China leads the world with an annual 3D printer growth rate of 172.9%

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3D printer shipments are forecast to more than double every year between 2016 and 2019, by which time worldwide shipments are expected to reach more than 5.6 million, according to new research from Gartner.

Last year, 106,761 3D printers were sold worldwide. This year, 3D printer shipments are expected to reach 244,533 units; next year, shipments are projected to reach 490,000.

The primary market drivers for "consumer" 3D printers, with prices under $2,500, are acquisitions of low-cost devices by schools and universities. 

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MakerBot's 3D printers are the classic RepRap style machine, where most of the parts for the printer can be replicated by the printer itself.

The primary "enterprise" 3D printer market drivers are advances in finished-piece quality and materials.

"Enterprise 3D printers can not only prototype new products and produce tools and fixtures that are used to make other items, but also print high-quality, short-run finished goods," Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner, said in a statement. "This multifaceted ability is driving their growth worldwide."

Also driving new sales this past year were the entries of at least two major 3D printer technology providers from outside the existing 3D printer market.

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The Formlabs Form 1+ 3D printer retails for $3,299, but it's a machine that offers outstanding resolution in printed objects. which uses a laser and basin-filled photosensitive polymer resin to create objects. As a stereolithography printer, the machine works by using a laser to sketch out a pattern in light-sensitive resin.

Tool manufacturer Dremel unveiled its 3D Idea Builder, which is available via Amazon.com and at Home Depot and Lowes stores.

Meanwhile, startup Carbon3D,  took "an innovative, chemistry-driven approach to 3D printing," Gartner stated. "Its Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) process balances the interplay of light and oxygen to move the printing process away from the 'additive 2D' nature of much 3D printing toward faster, continuous, genuinely three-dimensional manufacturing," Garner's report stated.

Another startup, MatterFab, backed by GE Ventures, expects to have beta systems of its laser-based, metal powder bed fusion printer installed in 2016.

"Rapid quality and performance innovations across all 3D printer technologies are driving both enterprise and consumer demand, with unit shipment growth rates for 3D printers increasing significantly," Basiliere said. "The 3D printer market is continuing its transformation from a niche market to a broad-based, global market of enterprises and consumers."

Consumer machines with prices at under $1,000 or in the $1,001-to-$2,500 range have particularly high rates of sales. Of those two groups, sub-$1,000 3D printers make up 25.5% of the sales, but are expected to grow to 40.7% of that market by 2019.

North America and Western Europe continue to dominate 3D printer sales with 66.2% of the total shipments in 2014, however, both regions will experience lower shipment growth rates compared to other regions.

Historically, 3D printers were sold in the regions where they were made: North America, Western Europe, Japan and, more recently, China.

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While slow, and somewhat lackluster in features, XYZPrinting's da Vinci machines cost as little as $349 for a device well suited to beginners.

Greater China now has the highest 3D printer annual growth rate at 172.9%, which is being driven by national support for the technology and investments in education, business and research. Eurasia comes in second with a 131.7% combined annual growth rate, and the emerging Asia/Pacific region is third at 126.4%.

The fastest-growing segment of the 3D market is materials, which include polymer filaments. The material extrusion market is expected to lead shipments this year with 232,336 units, increasing to 5,527,493 units in 2019.

The material extrusion market is largely growing due to sales of low cost, entry-level material extrusion printers, Gartner stated.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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