Additive Manufacturing: The State of the Industry

Additive Manufacturing: The State of the Industry

Jul 27, 2016

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Assoicates Inc. , Tim Caffrey, Manufacturing Engineering

This article includes highlights from Wohlers Report 2016, the 21st annual worldwide progress report on the 3D printing and additive manufacturing state of the industry.

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing, terms used interchangeably, are alive and well. Organizations around the world, including many national governments, are investing substantial resources into the development of the technology and its adoption. An impressive number of new companies and businesses are developing AM products and services in ways the industry has not seen in the past. New machines and materials are becoming available at a breakneck pace. Novel applications and other advances suggest a future that will bridge AM’s prototyping past to a production future. This is stimulating countless organizations worldwide to explore ways in which they can become a part of this fast-growing and exciting industry.

Those who have invested in some of the publicly traded stocks may be less than thrilled about the current state of the industry. Indeed, some of the changes in share prices over the past two years have not been pretty. Some have been downright ugly. Do not let low stock values fool you. When looking at almost everything else associated with AM, it is not difficult to become ecstatic about where it’s headed.


Investments Abound

Many organizations worldwide are betting, some big, with their pocketbooks. For example, it was announced early last year that $259 million would be spent to create the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, a public–private partnership project aimed at developing East Tennessee into an AM hub. The Department of Energy has committed $70 million, and the remainder is coming from a consortium of 122 companies and universities.

In September 2015, Alcoa announced that it would spend $60 million to expand an R&D center to include the development of AM methods and materials. The following month, the state of New York said it would invest $125 million in a 3D printing facility that would operate as a public–private partnership. Norsk Titanium of Norway is its primary partner.

In January 2016, Stryker announced that it would spend nearly $400 million to build a facility for the production of titanium orthopedic implants by AM. The following month, Siemens announced that it is investing €21.4 million to open a metal 3D printing facility in Sweden. The same month, UK-based materials developer Metalysis received £20 million (about $28.4 million) to drive growth and commercialization of metal powders such as titanium, bespoke alloys, and tantalum for 3D printing.

In the first quarter of 2016, GE opened a $32 million, 125,000 ft2 (11,613 m2) AM R&D center in Pittsburgh, PA, called the Center for Additive Manufacturing Advancement. The site will serve as a testing ground for many of GE’s businesses. In December 2015, GE Aviation announced that it had begun the production of the well-known fuel nozzle by AM. The nozzle is being installed on the LEAP engine, which will begin service this year.

The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, also known as America Makes, entered 2016 in full stride. According to Ed Morris, director of the institute, 163 organizations across the US had become members as of February 2016. This is up from 120 members a year earlier. The public–private partnership, focused exclusively on AM, had more than $87 million in AM research and development projects underway with 150 engaged partners. A project call by America Makes in March has expanded the funding by about $10 million.


New Players and Machines

A staggering number of companies are entering the AM industry. At the Inside 3D Printing event in Santa Clara, CA, in October 2015, we counted no fewer than 25 new companies that displayed AM products and/or services. Many companies worldwide are offering industrial-grade AM systems (those that sell for $5000 or more), although relatively few of them participated in the event. Last year, 62 manufacturers from around the world produced and sold industrial-grade AM systems, according to research for Wohlers Report 2016. This is up from 49 manufacturers the year before.

Ricoh has partnered with Aspect of Japan to develop and commercialize the AM S5500P laser sintering (LS) machine. The product’s build volume is 21.7 × 21.7 × 19.7″ (550 × 550 × 500 mm) and is priced at ¥75 million (about $658,000). In September 2015, China’s Farsoon partnered with France’s Prodways to add new powder bed fusion machines to the market. Prodways introduced a family of systems, called the “Prodways powered by Farsoon” ProMaker P series, in early 2016. Prodways is also selling Farsoon’s thermoplastic powders..

Other LS machines are emerging, in part as a result of the expired foundation patents for selective laser sintering at the University of Texas at Austin. This year, Sintratec (Switzerland) is expected to ship its S1 LS machine that builds parts that fit in a 5.9 × 5.9 × 7.9″ (150 × 150 × 200 mm) build volume. The introductory price is €9,000. Sinterit (Poland) is introducing its Lisa LS machine, which is similar in size to Sintratec’s product and is priced at €7,000. Meanwhile, Sentrol, a CNC machine tool company in South Korea, is launching a large machine for around $300,000 that is capable of producing parts in plastic, metal, and sand (for casting molds and cores).

Other large machines are developing and coming to market. Additive Industries of the Netherlands has introduced the MetalFAB1 with a build volume of 16.5 × 16.5 × 15.8″ (420 × 420 × 400 mm). The system can be configured with up to 11 modules and includes automated build plate handling, excess powder removal, and two build chambers. The base price of the product is €1.1 million. Massivit3D of Israel offers a system that produces parts as large as 3 × 3.8 × 4.6′ (1.2 × 1.5 × 1.8 m). Due to its relatively low resolution, the system is not suitable for many AM markets. However, it may appeal to the producers of theme parks, films, props for theater performances, large sculptures, marketing/advertising, and possibly furniture.

Several fast machines that produce parts in photopolymer are being commercialized. Receiving the most attention over the past year is Carbon (USA), a company that rolled out a new machine based on its Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology. It is said to be up to 100 times faster than other AM machines. Meanwhile, Carima (South Korea) has announced Continuous Additive 3D Printing Technology (C-CAT), an alternative photopolymer process that builds at a rate of up to 60 cm (24″) per hour, in the vertical direction. This is four times faster than the reported build speed of Carbon’s CLIP process.

Others that are developing fast photopolymer machine technology include NewPro3D of Canada, Nexa3D of Italy, and Gizmo of Australia. All three have made bold claims about the high speed of their respective processes.

More machines are on the horizon, too. Three well-known companies are preparing to launch new products. Before the end of this year, HP is expected to ship a product based on its Multi Jet Fusion technology. The thermoplastic parts resemble those made by LS, but are built at 10x the speed. Multicolor and special physical properties, such as electrical conductivity, are also in the plans. Canon plans to commercialize an AM product in or around 2017, but has not disclosed the specific machine technology. It is expected to use polyamide, polypropylene, and other thermoplastic materials. Mattel plans to ship its new ThingMaker, based on material extrusion, in the second half of this year. The $299 product, targeted at kids, comes a half century after its Creepy Crawler ThingMaker that used small molds and plastic goop to make rubbery worms and insects.


New Materials

Third-party companies that produce materials, especially metals, are also entering the AM industry at a fast pace. Among those that are introducing metals are Equispheres (Canada), Carpenter Technology Corp. (USA), FalconTech (China), H.C. Starck (Germany), Höganäs AB (Sweden), LPW Technology (UK), Osaka Titanium Technologies (Japan), Praxair Surface Technologies (USA), and Sandvik Materials Technology (Sweden). Wohlers Associates counts 34 companies offering metals for AM.

Even though AM for polymers has been around for nearly 1.5 decades longer than AM for metals, fewer third-party companies have offered polymers for industrial AM. This is because some of the major producers of AM systems have locked down their machines, preventing other material products from being used in them. The expiration of key patents, followed by the development of new AM machines with open-system architecture, has led to a rise in the number of companies offering polymers for these machines.

Among the third-party companies that offer polymers for industrial AM systems are Arkema (France), DSM Somos (USA), Evonik (Germany), Farsoon (China), and Rhodia (France). An estimated 23 companies offer polymers for industrial AM systems. This is up from a small handful a few years ago.


Emerging Applications

The use of AM for making models and prototype parts is well established and understood. The industry has had 28 years to develop and refine the technology and workflow for these important applications. The next frontier and big opportunity is the use of AM to create final production-quality parts, and that’s precisely where much of the focus and investment has been in the recent past.

Nano Dimension is an Israeli company that is producing a 3D printer for making printed circuit boards (PCBs). The machine and sample PCBs were on display at SolidWorks World 2016 in Dallas, TX, in January. The dual printhead machine uses material jetting technology to deposit photopolymer as the base material and a silver nanoparticle ink for the conductive traces. The printhead deposits the silver in layers that are 2 μm in thickness. It takes about 75 minutes to print a circuit board that’s about 38 × 38 mm (1.5 × 1.5″) in size, so the company is targeting prototyping and low-volume applications. Light is used to fully cure the photopolymer and sinter the silver.

Early last year, reports showed that Shanghai-based WinSun was 3D printing multistory buildings. Articles on the printing of entire homes had been published in the past, although most were met with disbelief. This one, however, included many detailed images, suggesting that it might be real.

Upon closer examination, only the wall sections were 3D printed, and they were produced off site and then assembled at the location of the building construction. Conventional materials and methods were used to construct the floors, ceilings, roofs, stairs, and kitchen and bathroom fixtures. The same was true for the plumbing, electrical, and HVAC, as well as the insulation, windows, doors, exterior covering (e.g., siding, brick, and stucco), and interior covering, such as sheetrock/drywall.

In this particular case, it is difficult to see how the use of 3D printing technology could save time or money. When you factor in the added cost of a large, expensive, and not very portable 3D printer, the cost of these wall sections are likely far more expensive and time-consuming than conventional walls. The use of 3D printing may be good for the purpose of marketing and gaining attention, but that’s all, at least for now.


The FDM Phenomenon

Since the early 2000s, fused deposition modeling (FDM)—more formally referred to as material extrusion by ASTM and ISO—has been the most popular AM and 3D printing process worldwide. In 2003, Stratasys sold nearly as many FDM machines as all other AM machines combined, according to our research for Wohlers Report 2004. In 2006, Stratasys was responsible for 54.7% (1723) of all AM systems sold.

Although few people knew it at the time, 2007 was a turning point for FDM technology. This was when the RepRap project, an open-source effort focused on FDM technology, began to gain traction. It coincided with the expiration of key FDM foundation patents held by Stratasys. We believe that 66 low-cost (under $5000) FDM clones were sold in 2007, but the sale of these products grew to an estimated 278,385 in 2015, based on research for Wohlers Report 2016. To give some appreciation for this estimate, 12,558 industrial AM machines (priced at more than $5000) were sold in 2015.

The RepRap project has served as the foundation for hundreds of startup companies that have produced and sold FDM clones around the world. A knowledgeable and well-connected person in China told us in December 2015 that as many as 1000 manufacturers of FDM clones may be in operation in China alone.

A lot has happened since the first FDM machines were sold by Stratasys in 1991. Few envisioned the impact of the expiring patents and the open-source RepRap project. With so many companies trying to build businesses around FDM, it is unclear how many will survive. Someone once said that it’s a race to the bottom, and to some degree, this person is right. Few of these low-cost 3D printers are being used by average consumers in homes, but they are gaining traction for basic modeling and prototyping at companies of all sizes. Also, educational institutions at many levels are buying them in impressive numbers.


Summary and Conclusions

The AM industry is strong and hitting on all cylinders, despite stock values that have been less than stellar over the past two years. When setting them aside, it’s difficult to not get excited about the introduction of so many new companies, machines, materials, and services. New applications are also developing, especially the manufacture of parts for final products. Low-cost, desktop 3D printers are gaining in popularity, especially among companies and educational institutions. A foundation built over the past 28 years, coupled with so many new developments, point to a future that will soon be measured in tens of billions of dollars in AM products and services worldwide.

This article was first published in the May 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Read “Additive Manufacturing: The State of the Industry” as a PDF.


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