A Silver Bullet for 3D Printing?

While in recent years the popular press has put out stories, which generally reference “the 3D printing market” as one, single, unified market, it is actually several different markets and is made up of several different technologies. The reality is that each different type of 3D Printing (aka Additive Manufacturing or AM) technology has its pluses and minuses and that none in-and-of itself offers a “silver bullet” solution for all manufacturing challenges for all vertical markets.

One way to give order to the chaos of the “3D Printing Market” is to examine the space by the different technologies used in AM. The ASTM is an internal standards body, which looks to help to give order across many manufacturing and materials segments (including Additive Manufacturing) by way of standard definitions. For the Additive Manufacturing segment, the ASTM has segmented the market into seven distinctive categories. Manufacturers tend to have intellectual property rights for their own variants of these seven processes – and their own names and acronyms – but the ASTM definitions provide an excellent starting point for quantifying the market.

Examining the market by these seven ASTM categories indeed reveals that there is no one dominant technology in the market today: one process allows 3D printing of metals, another produces plastic parts, while yet another enables colour 3D models to be created, and each has its pluses and minuses in various markets. In the nascent desktop/personal 3D printer market, for example material extrusion (often called FDM or FFF) rules. 97% of desktop printers shipped across the world in Q3 15 were of this type. In recent years, desktop vat photopolymerisation printers (SLA or DLP printers) that allow a greater level of detail have been introduced in this desktop/personal segment as well but like FDM printers, also have limitations. Other technologies have faster print times, or can print in colour, but no technology allows for everything. These printers offer a great introduction to the concepts of additive manufacturing for young engineers, students and even some general consumers, but they hardly allow for the printing of anything anyone might want.

Likewise, there is no single technology on the industrial/professional side if the market that can provide all things to all industries. A breakdown of the revenues from sales of 3D printing hardware in the seven defined ASTM categories helps to show that no one process is dominant.

But examining hardware revenues alone does not tell the entire story since many powder bed fusion machines are metal based and very expensive (into the millions of dollars). Looking at the market in terms of the numbers of printers sold shows that more of the industrial/professional printers shipped are based on material extrusion than any other technology, but that no one technology is “winning.”

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Since different machines can print totally different materials – or even multiple materials – using these seven core AM processes, there really is no single silver bullet for 3D printing.

by CC

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