3D printing has been around for almost 30 years, used by a wide range of product manufacturers, aerospace companies and others to quickly design and produce prototypes, molds, one-off parts and more without having to invest lots of money and time.
But in the past five years, 3D printing has been growing much faster as enterprises of all sizes find out they can buy a device for as little as $500 and begin trying out new ideas they never dreamed of in the past.
Much of the latest enthusiasm for 3D printing comes from a blooming hobbyist or "maker" movement that has helped bring down the cost of smaller devices to where companies of any size can now afford to try one, Chris Curran, the chief technologist for PricewaterhouseCoopers, told eWEEK.
"This is the coming together of large-scale industrial stuff and the hobbyist stuff," said Curran. "I think these are all great options for companies to experiment with. Without experimentation, we can't go anywhere."
The basic consumer-grade machines of today don't offer the precision of units that cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, he said, but they allow companies to perform relatively inexpensive trials and gain new insights about how they can use 3D printers productively. "For a company that doesn't require super-high precision right now, maybe a telecom that needs wire insulators, they could do a pilot project."
What will continue to drive 3D printer installations in the enterprise are further refinements in the materials used for printing, increased device precision and improved price-performance, said Curran. Three to five years from now, a home appliance repair person may be able to drive to a service call, produce a needed part on a 3D printer in their truck and install it as part of a repair, he added.
"All the problems we are talking about are being worked on," he said. "Who's going to bite the bullet with production-level parts" and buy 100 such devices so they can really explore the possibilities, asked Curran. "I don't see any reason that the experiments couldn't start soon."
Anthony Vicari, an analyst with Lux Research, agrees. Vicari said he's often seeing companies buying 3D printers for specific projects, but then quickly being adapted to new projects envisioned by other employees. "They find all kinds of other uses for them," said Vicari. "The 3D printers today are significantly different from those even a few years ago, bringing in new possibilities."
One client bought a printer to make a part and then saw they could also use it to make a product sample holder, he said. Another client uses a 3D printer to shave one second off the manufacturing time for a part and saved about $100,000 for the business, which was more than the cost of the 3D printer, said Vicari.
Today, the global 3D printing business is a $2.2 billion market that continues to grow, he said. In some cases, companies are able to print out parts that in the past would have had been painstakingly created by milling a large, expensive chunk of metal. In some cases, printed parts today will outperform a machined metal part, particularly for exotic items that require precision such as rocket engine nozzles, Vicari said.
3D printers typically work by laying down layer upon layer of material to gradually build up a part until it is complete. There are seven different technologies used in 3D printers that work with various materials, including plastics and metals.
The major manufacturers of the devices include Stratasys, 3D Systems, ExOne, EOS, Concept Laser, Arcam, Beijing Tiertime and XYZprinting. Top-of-the-line industrial 3D printers can sell for as much as $5 million.
Worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to double in 2015 to 217,350 units, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to figures released Oct. 27 by Gartner.