Despite growth, 3D printing represents only 0.1% of global manufacturing

Adoption of 3D printing is increasing across different industries, with annual growth estimated at 23.5% over the next five years. How can it break the 1% threshold?

What is 3D metal printing? Move over plastic--3D printers can now assemble metal particles into custom-shaped objects.

Interest in 3D printing technology is increasing across a variety of industries, as well as among hobbyists using it for their own projects--but this interest has not yet translated into mass adoption, according to the Q1 2019 3D Printing Trends report, published by 3D Hubs on Wednesday.

The year 2018 saw a great deal of investment in 3D printing, according to the report, with companies interested in the technology investing in startups, while established firms like BASF acquired startups to bolster their own portfolio.

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Image: 3D Hubs

Practical deployment of 3D printed parts by companies also occurred in 2018, with HP--which also makes 3D printers--announcing plans to use 3D printed parts in their internal supply chain. Adidas released a limited-edition sneaker with a 3D printed insole in Q1, with plans to increase the use of 3D printing in the future, the report noted.

SEE: 50 things you should know about 3D printing (Tech Pro Research)

3D printing is largely being deployed by automotive and aerospace companies, with Bugatti showcasing a 3D printed titanium brake caliper, BMW announcing a 3D printed bracket for use in a commercial vehicle, and GM using 3D printing for "thousands of parts" for electric vehicles.

Additionally, Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are using the technology primarily for spare parts. For aerospace, Boeing announced investments in 3D printing, while Lufthansa opened a facility for Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) use cases.

For production, not just prototyping

For the $12.7 trillion global manufacturing market, 3D printing represents less than 0.1%, and faces a challenge in reaching 1%. The report indicates that industry experts believe that goal--representing $125 billion--is possible, though "is five times greater than even the most optimistic 5-year forecast."

According to the report, "Until recently, 3D printing was used almost exclusively for prototyping. The prototyping market is relatively small - estimated in the scale of $10's of billions USD. The review of the industry and the interviews with the subject experts showed that large enterprises are making their first steps towards small-scale production and mass manufacturing with 3D printing. The size of these markets is 10 to 100 times larger than prototyping, opening up new opportunities for growth."

Educating executives in large enterprises of the possibilities that 3D printing offers is considered the primary barrier to adoption, according to the report.

Online 3D printing eliminates upfront investment in printer technology

The sizable investment needed to purchase and deploy 3D printers on premises is difficult to justify for low manufacturing volumes. 3D Hubs--which serves a broker between local producers and customers seeking to print objects--sees online 3D printers as a way to bridge the gap, making it accessible for engineers to use in their projects.

In a survey conducted for the report, over three quarters of respondents from companies with less than 100 employees indicated they were likely to use an online printing service.

Still, adoption for uses other than prototyping is nascent. According to the report, "more than 50% of the respondents use online services for the production of end-use parts, but only 38% choose 3D printing for this purpose. Conversely, 3D printing is their first choice for prototyping more than 91% of the time."

Cost for using 3D-printed parts at scale is still prohibitive, with 90% of engineers who responded to the survey said "they would not consider 3D printing for productions of over 100 parts."

For more on 3D printing, check out TechRepublic's cheat sheets to 3D printing and 3D metal printing.

Also see

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Image: 3D Systems