Thirty years have passed since 3-D printers first appeared, but only recently have they hinted at a new era of manufacturing.
The first working 3-D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp., Morrisville, N.C. This early device, based on stereolithography, gave way to the first truly practical 3-D printing, or “3DP”, technology patented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993. Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a large growth in sales of these machines as their prices dropped substantially. Today, 3-D printers have become more of a staple in the current manufacturing space, while still piquing hobbyist interest. The 3-D printing process usually works by selectively binding powder particles together, layer-by-layer, using a high-resolution inkjet printhead. A thin layer of powder is spread across the build area specified by CAD software, creating layers.
Propelled by the promise of inexpensive, highly customizable manufacturing, the 3-D printer manufacturing industry has surged over the past five years, driven by rapid technological developments, falling costs and new applications for 3-D printing technology. The 3-D printing industry has grown at a faster pace than expected, reaching about $2.2 billion worldwide in 2012, according to market research from Wohlers Associates. In the U.S., IBISWorld reported the 3-D printer market in 2014 at $1 billion with a CAGR of 22.8% over the period of 2009 to 2014. While still a small industry—as far as standalone 3-D printer manufacturers with 6,933 employees and 50 businesses—3-D printing is increasingly used in medical device and aircraft manufacturing, and is becoming a staple in some manufacturing processes.
The editors of R&D Magazine surveyed their readers to see what trends are important in the 3-D printing industry.