The 3D printing industry, no stranger to the angst of growing pains, seems on the brink of maturity. In the past few years alone, 3D-printer-parts have become vital components in cars, airplanes and even your running shoes. The technology is used to make prosthetic limbs, hearing aids and dental guards. Specialized 3D -printing construction companies are building houses in the United States and overseas. It even helped make nasal swabs, face masks and critical care ventilators to ease pandemic supply shortages.
These remarkable industry advances beg the question: Can 3D printing make money?
It can, and it does. The global market for 3D printing, or 3DP, grew by 19.5 percent in 2021 to $15.2 billion, up from $9.98 billion in 2018, according to a 2022 industry report by Wohlers Associates, a technical and strategic 3DP consulting firm operating under ASTM International. Despite slower growth of 7.5 percent in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Wohlers estimates the industry had an annual average growth rate of 20 percent from 2018 to 2021. The market is expected to continue an upward trajectory in the next five to 10 years, and while forecasts vary, conservative estimates say the global 3DP market will reach $50 billion to $68 billion by 2028.
“Growth has looked strong over the last four years. Even through the pandemic, there was growth,” says Noah Mastow, market intelligence and analytics manager at Wohlers. “It’s a work in progress, but people are seeing that the technology offers a lot of opportunity to improve efficiencies, and make products lighter, cheaper, faster and in fewer steps.”
3D printing, known as additive manufacturing, has key advantages over traditional manufacturing, It can make shapes with geometric complexities, and create unique objects tailored to meet specs or to fit a person. It can produce parts without changing or adding tools, molds or dyes. The technology builds single items or objects in full and final form. That reduces the need to assemble parts, a stage prone to error. And in-house part production may alleviate supply-chain shortages and eliminate stockpiling parts in a costly warehouse.
Heavy industry has been investing in 3DP technology for nearly two decades and has served to drive growth, industry sources say. While Wall Street and tech-savvy consumers have focused on desktop 3D printing, key players in heavy industry have quietly been transforming production lines around the world, adding 3D-printing technology to existing set-ups or bringing entire additive manufacturing capabilities in-house. Companies embracing the technology cut across a broad swath of industries, says Mastow, including automotive, aerospace, defense/military, electronics, construction and healthcare.
Ford Motor Co. uses the technology to customize accessories for its Maverick truck. BMW claims the i8 Roadster could not have been built without additive manufacturing. Porsche uses it to make obsolete parts for classic car repair. The Mayo Clinic has a 3DP department to make surgical models. The Boeing Co. uses 3DP to make lightweight plane parts. The military is building new barracks via 3DP and additive manufacturing, while NASA employs it to make lightweight satellite components and rocket engines.
This is not to say additive manufacturing using 3DP technology would or could replace all traditional manufacturing, as some investor enthusiasts profess.
“In some cases it may be cheaper to go with conventional manufacturing,” says Mastow. “Will 3D replace conventional manufacturing? No. Will it become part of the existing manufacturing process? It already is. Additive manufacturing is another tool in the overall repertoire of manufacturing.”
For the uninitiated, or those curious about investment opportunities, it’s worth taking a closer look. Three-dimensional printing is part of additive manufacturing, and the phrases are used interchangeably, though industry experts say that is not exactly correct. 3D printing is not a standalone product or process. It is not a market in and of itself, but one technological step in the additive-manufacturing process.
All3DP, one of a growing number of online industry information providers, explains it this way in a recent white paper: “Additive manufacturing, as the name implies, adds material, layer upon layer, until the desired shape of a part is achieved, effectively creating the part out of “nothing.” It does this using a variety of technologies. Some additive manufacturing methods extrude plastics from a nozzle, some use light to solidify liquid plastics in a vat, some use lasers to join particles of powdered material into a solid shape, among many more approaches. But what they all have in common is that they add material in layers, rather than “subtract” material from a larger piece.”
Additive manufacturing traverses a number of market sectors, and every year scores of startups enter the fray, new patents are awarded, and new approaches and procedures are developed, in some cases by private industry giants, in other instances by government agencies or entrepreneurs. Like any digital technology, 3DP and additive manufacturing constitute a complex manufacturing ecosystem, one that requires software, hardware, services and an array of input materials. There are scores of different materials — ranging from concrete and plastics to metals and even food, for example — used to build three-dimensional objects.
Adding to the complexity, there is no one additive manufacturing process, but rather many technological approaches with names such as sterolithography, fused deposition modeling and digital light processing. There are seven primary additive manufacturing tech methods in all, according to industry experts, and a half dozen more variations and offshoots. The technologies are not compatible with all input materials, industry experts say, and specific manufacturing sectors do better with certain methodologies.
The field of dentistry, for example, favors stereolithography or resin printing for its ability to make smooth, intricate bio-parts. Machine shops rely on fused deposition modeling because it makes strong carbon-based tools. The auto industry uses selective laser sintering to print lightweight titanium parts.
Taken together, one might speculate there are scores of investment opportunities, if you can figure out what they are. There are legacy companies, such as Autodesk, HP and Microsoft, all of which have developed software specifically tailored to additive manufacturing and 3DP. And there are newcomers to the field, including Formlabs, Nexa3D, ValCUN, Azul3D, Icon Technology and others. Scores of new startups enter the fray each year seeking venture capital, which in 2021 reportedly committed $11 billion to the space.
Few truly disruptive, breakthrough innovations become commercially viable without support from the U.S. government, and various federal agencies have been pouring money into 3DP technology and additive manufacturing for more than a decade, channeling the investment through agencies including the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, the Food and Drug Administration, and NASA, to name a few.
The most recent government program launched in early May 2022, when the Biden administration announced a new initiative the White House calls “additive manufacturing forward.” Press announcements describe the program as a voluntary endeavor between large corporate stakeholders, such as GE Aviation, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Siemens Energy, and U.S.-based suppliers. The goal is to educate the labor force and to shepherd 3DP’s adoption. The White House predicts the effort will help small- and medium-
size shop floors around country adopt 3D printing technology and domesticate more manufacturing.
This is not the first time the Oval Office has backed the technology. In 2012, the Obama administration launched America Makes, initially a joint collaboration among DOD, Department of Education, Department of Commerce, National Science Foundation, DOE and NASA; 40 corporations; nine research universities; five community colleges; and 11 nonprofit organizations, all in an effort to push additive manufacturing forward. America Makes, based in Ohio and managed by the not-for-profit National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, is at the vortex of America’s effort to fully adopt additive manufacturing. It’s a launchpad and meeting ground of sorts, a vehicle to distribute federal grants, guide research and development, and set up educational programs to train future workers.
Brandon Rubic, technology director at America Makes, says additive manufacturing has mostly been used to create spare industrial parts and repairs, especially within the aerospace and defense industries. But the technology is now under consideration for biomedical use, which would open a new industrial vein.
“There appears to be growing interest in [additive manufacturing] for biomedical applications. These include implanted tissues, surrogate tissues for drug development, and training aids/anatomical models,” says Rubic.
America Makes also administers projects designed to nail down regulatory standards, and to discover better and cheaper input materials.
“Polymer is one of the most widely used forms of AM technologies,” says Rubic. “There is extensive research ongoing at America Makes on powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition of metal alloys. We are learning what is needed to advance the state of the art for ceramic and composite AM, and look forward to better understanding needs in those domains over the next year or two.”
All of the funding, collaboration, public-private commitment, research and development, and academic input begs yet another question: Why hasn’t 3DP and additive manufacturing advanced more quickly?
Industry stakeholders concede it is still difficult to scale product for mass manufacturing, although advocates are quick to point out that additive manufacturing isn’t the answer to all product production or viable in every industrial sector. Also slowing progress is the limitation in print sizes on the 3DP hardware side. And some technologies need heavy post-processing, which can undercut cost savings.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge is establishing global standards and certifications, the stamp of approval that anchors industrial manufacturing regardless of the product, the industrial sector, the type of technology or production procedure. Every industrial sector has specialized rules, certifications or requirements. There are standards for software and hardware, and standards required to make industrial parts. Standardization, certification and regulations apply to almost everything humans manufacture; standards are necessary to approve or sell drugs, metals, wood panels, surgical tools and running shoes. For 3DP to garner widespread acceptance, existing standards and certifications used in traditional manufacturing must be equal to those used in or tweaked to apply to 3DP products and processes, regardless of the product or industrial sector.
Not an easy or enviable task. Consider the recent efforts under way to establish global standards for 3DP and additive manufacturing in the construction industry. 3D printed homes are cropping up in cities across the nation and internationally. In Rancho Mirage, Calif., the 3DP construction firm Mighty Buildings and Palari Group, a real estate developer, plan to build what they say is the world’s first community of 3D printed, net-zero energy homes. In Texas, the building newcomer Icon, an advanced technology construction company, built an affordable-
housing community of 400-square-foot one-bedroom homes. In the rural town of John Day, Ore., there are plans to build more than 100 3DP homes over the next five years. And in April, the 3D printing homebuilder Alquist announced ProjectVirginia, a 200-home development touted as the world’s largest 3D-printed construction project in the world. The projects are impressive, but missing from the picture are large real estate and housing developers.
3D-printed homes hold great promise and could reduce the housing shortage while creating a way to provide affordable housing, says Stephan Mansour, a veteran 3D construction consultant to many countries and governments grappling with 3DP challenges, and recently appointed associate consultant at Wohlers. He says 3DP construction companies can build houses faster, cheaper, more safely and with long-lasting materials, capable of withstanding disasters such as floods and earthquakes. He also believes the 3DP construction industry is poised to take off. The roadblock is final approval of industry construction and certification standards, and a stamp of unofficial approval from major homebuilders.
“For the most part, big housing and construction developers have not yet embraced 3D printing of homes,” says Mansour. “We have to have standards and guidelines in place first because when it comes to construction, lives and safety are involved.”
Mansour is widely credited with orchestrating a global effort to create construction standards and certifications that will ease current barriers to building 3DP homes. He almost single-handedly formed what’s known as the Joint Group 80, an international group of builders and experts who have been creating ISO/ASTM standards applicable to the 3DP construction movement.
“It’s not that companies don’t want to get into the technology, it’s that they are waiting for the certification and standards to be approved,” says Mansour.
He started the campaign to write standards in 2020, and he believes the Joint Group is close to finalizing the standards.
“Standards will open the door and enable more people established in the industry to adopt the 3DP/AM technology,” he says. “Within a year after the standards are in place, we will see larger companies embrace AM and 3DP home construction. We are near adoption now, and that will lead to mass production.”
If you are wondering what ever happened to all the hoopla over the 3D desktop printer, destined to be the next essential home appliance, it’s still around, but the hype has faded.
“Many thought 3D printers would be used everywhere for everything, and that every household would have a 3D printer,” says Mastow of Wohlers. “AM technology is not a golden ticket. It’s not the be all and end all for manufacturing. Now people are beginning to understand where the application makes sense and where it does not.”
Carolyn Marshall is a freelance writer based in Florida.