The Business Side of Additive Manufacturing
In this page in our previous issue, we discussed the continuing emergence of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies and the organizational steps taken by the Obama administration to nurture and disseminate them in this country. In support of this information, it is appropriate to add a few paragraphs relating to the business side of this budding industry.
In December 2013, the Cleveland-based market research company The Freedonia Group (TFG) released a study on the global market for the equipment, materials and software used in AM processes. (The numbers exclude the value of finished products produced by AM techniques.) According to the TFG report, entitled “World 3D Printing (Additive Manufacturing),” global demand for these products in 2012 was nearly $1.95 billion, of which the U.S. accounted for 42%; Western Europe 25%; and China and Japan combined for 16%. The breakdown by product demand is 62% for 3D printing (a term used here interchangeably with AM) machinery, 27% printing materials and 11% software.
Of even greater significance, however, is the rather bold (but unsurprising) predicted growth rate for these products through the next several years. By 2017, the report projects, demand for AM systems, materials and software will more than double and reach $5 billion – a 20.7% annual rate of growth for the period.
“The U.S. will remain by far the largest national (additive manufacturing) market in the world, accounting for 42% of global sales in 2017,” the report summarized. “In developed areas such as the U.S. and Western Europe, 3D printing market value will be supported by the growing presence of metal-based 3D printers for the production of finished parts, as such systems are significantly more expensive than plastics-based 3D printing systems.”
This is a significant statement because the forging industry will most likely realize its biggest threat from metal-based 3D printers.
But forgers need not panic just yet. First, plastics will continue to dominate the 3D printing materials market in the foreseeable future, even though metal-based systems will grow more rapidly. Second, AM is a slow process that cannot yet compete with other high-volume, metal-mass-production techniques. Also, AM technology is somewhat confined to small, fixed working envelopes and cannot produce massively large parts.
Still, at least two of the major industries served by the forging community – automotive and aerospace – have taken a more-than-active interest in the potential of AM to change their manufacturing landscape. Other sectors poised to benefit in the near term from AM technologies are dental and medical health. In dentistry, AM can be used to produce products such as braces, crowns, bridges and models of patients’ mouths. Medical applications include the creation of parts for contact lenses, prosthetics, implants, hearing aids and other related products.
As stated at the outset, the numbers quoted herein are confined only to the equipment, software and raw materials used in the production of AM products. But even though the value of AM-produced finished products is not included, their performance in service will be the ultimate test as to how much and how quickly AM will redraw the manufacturing landscape in this country and around the world.
Dean M. Peters, Editor