January 08, 2016      

Hooray for passing the inflection point!

Forecast for sales of 3D printing products and services worldwide to $7.3 billion in 2016,
while in 2018 it will be $12.7 billion, and in 2020, the market is expected to reach $21.2 billion.
— Terry Wohlers, (The Wohlers Report 2015)
inflection point

For 2016, according to Terry Wohlers, the “new norm” for 3D printing is big, as in:

  • Alcoa investing $60 million in additive manufacturing and 3D printing methods and materials.
  • Autodesk’s $100 million Spark Investment Fund full swing.
  • GE to open $32 million R&D facility in Pittsburgh called the Center for Additive Manufacturing Advancement.
  • Michelin and Fives collaborating on a $27.2 million investment involving the creation of a new company and metal AM.
  • The state of New York investing $125 million in a 3D printing facility in partnership with Norsk Titanium.

The new tool gets newer

The best — maybe the only — economic and mechanical analog to additive manufacturing is desktop printing. Both are additive processes, and to date, both have been primarily communication tools.

Designers employ additive manufacturing to give form to their ideas. That will always be the case, but this technology is quickly moving to an industrial scale as techniques, materials and systems mature.

One of the enticing promises of the technology is the ability to do better than just-in-time parts delivery, where parts never sit on shelves waiting to be assembled.

A significant link in the supply chain would disappear, saving money as well as time. Quality control for parts would become an internal matter and, presumably, improve. Even air quality could improve (if marginally) in an additive-manufacturing world, which would require fewer delivery vehicles.

the split

There’s also the hope that the technology will usher in circular manufacturing, in which printed goods are broken down for reprinting. In an age of growing scarcity of raw materials coinciding with the urgent need to minimize costs, additive manufacturing could have a significant impact on bottom lines.

Buoying industrial growth have been desktop and consumer systems, generally referred to as 3D printing and costing less than $5,000, which arrived almost in sync with a DIY, or “maker,” culture of people building their own electronics, toys and parts. This has raised the profile of additive manufacturing among investors of all kinds.

Collapse in confidence

Given all of this positive energy, it is not surprising that investors would want in. Sentiment on Wall St. bubbled into full-on hype by 2013, and early in 2014, money fled the vicinity.

Questions that sparked the collapse in confidence are still being asked. When, if ever, will additive manufacturing scale up (i.e. print faster)? Which giants besides Hewlett-Packard Development Co. are going to enter this market? How long before printer hardware is the commodity and the media — primarily resins and powdered metals — are the revenue generators?

Manufacturing CEOs buying into the concept face their own questions. How will their infrastructure change? The floor area freed from finished inventory would be replaced by a similar volume required by raw printing materials, for example. Processes involved in receiving, storing and distributing parts could be replaced by those required by printing materials and workstations.

Then there are lesser-discussed worries about workplace and environmental safety. Exuberant green claims to the contrary, there are concerns about fumes from additive manufacturing, and early planet-friendly claims look less virtuous. And two popular materials, aluminum and titanium, are highly combustible as powders.

You’ll see a different type of machining?

The near-term reality is that there still are some issues to iron out, but opportunities abound. Today’s slow builds might frustrate mass manufacturers, but low-volume, custom production is well suited for small-scale, flexible lines making value-added parts and end products. GE Aviation is making tens of thousands of copies of a small but critical jet-engine part that will deliver outsized results for airlines, for example.

“I actually see additive as producing situations where you?re going to have higher-skilled positions that companies are going to need to fill, both on the technician level, and the engineering and design level,” Greg Morris, who leads the GE Aviation team, told Business Insider.

“And I frankly think you’ll see a different type of machining that will challenge the current state of machining, meaning you’ll get complex parts that a machinist will have to work with versus starting with a block of material. So you’re not replacing machinists; you’re just asking them to learn a little different skill set of what they start with and work with.”

Industries active in additive manufacturing today include aircraft, bio-medical, medical technology, dental and electronics. A good indication of the technology’s maturation is its ability to deliver in uncompromising environments. Today, printers are operating out at sea with the U.S. Navy, in Afghanistan with the Army and in orbit aboard the International Space Station.

A higher degree of automation for self-correction, lower prices for hardware, software and media, are combining to make additive manufacturing a comparatively solid investment opportunity.