Components of GE's LEAP engines are being 3D printed

Though it's been around for 30 years, 3D printing was, for most of that history, principally used as a tool to help designers create product prototypes via computer-aided design software to output examples of products for later production via other manufacturing methods.

But in a recent report, Lux Research says the 3D printing market is expected to quadruple within the next decade to $12 billion and move directly onto the shop floor to create complex parts for production directly.

Firms like Cincinnati are hard at work figuring out ways to increase speed, a major barrier to using the technology for production. AM breakthroughs are expected to make 3D printing viable as a production tool for some applications over the course of the next decade.

"You won't 3D print a Ford F150 truck or 400,000 screws, but you can manufacture jet engines or customized orthopedics for patients," says Anthony Vicari, a Lux Research associate and the lead author of the report. "You may be able to save manufacturing costs and reduce the prices of end parts."

The medical and dental market are already exploding for 3D printed prosthetics, and customized prosthetic legs and arms which once cost thousands of dollars to manufacture are now being made for a fraction of those prices.

"Consumer uses of 3D printing attract most of the headlines, but industrial uses, from molds and tooling to actual production parts, are quietly having the greatest impact," Vicari added. "Where I see the most room for improvement is in the range of materials that can be used to 3D print, multi-material printing and improved design methods."

Experts say the sale of 3D printers will reach $3.2 billion and another $2 billion in revenue will be generated in the sales of thermopolymers and formulated materials used for printing, but Lux Research says the major share of the market – expected to be in the neighborhood of $7 billion – will come from the value of the products produced by 3D printers.

"We're seeing the highest growth rates in the manufacturing side," Vicari said. "We're seeing manufacturing growing from a small share of the market – 12 percent today – to 46 percent of the market in 2025."

And that's not a pie-in-the-sky prediction; General Electric plans to use 3D printing to create complex metal parts for its next-generation GE9X and Leap models engine, and they'll be doing it this year.

Much of the buzz comes from the ability of additive manufacturing technology to save on the cost of materials. Traditional "subtractive manufacturing" processes waste lots of materials, but using additive manufacturing processes, those losses drop from 90 percent down to 5 or 10 percent.

So what's holding back immediate adoption of AM technologies for production? Lux Research says it's the price of printing materials. As manufacturers often sell printing materials at a steep markup, something like 10 to 100 times over cost to produce, end users currently find that their options for materials are restricted and that third-party material suppliers are often reluctant to enter the market.

Vicari adds that 3D Systems, Stratasys, EOS and Arcam have captured a combined 31% of the AM and 3D printer market share.

Vicari and his co-authors, Ross Kozarsky and Michael Holman, Ph.D., say growth will be accelerated when a number of patents expire. As patents on key 3D printing technologies expire over the next three years, the cost of leveraging the technologies those patents cover will fall as well. Patents on selective laser sintering (SLS) expire this year, and the patent for SLS printing of filled composites also expires in 2015.