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3-D printing seeing major growth beyond rapid prototyping

By: Bill Bregar

November 19, 2013

The use of 3-D printing to make final commercial products continues its decade-long growth trajectory, according to a new report from Wohlers Associates.

3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is used to make parts in a process called direct manufacturing. In 2012, final part production hit 28.3 percent of the $2.2 billion spent on 3-D printing worldwide. In 2003, it represented just 3.9 percent of total spending.

“They money is in manufacturing, not prototyping,” said Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates. “The opportunity for more commercial production activity from additive manufacturing is immense.”

Caffrey is the principal author of Wohlers Report 2013 from the consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colo.

Additive manufacturing is growing in several market segments. They include metal copings for dental crowns and bridges, orthopedic implants and jewelry. The technology also is used to make parts for the aerospace industry, such as Boeing Co.’s use of 3-D printing to make ducting for directing the flow of air on military and commercial aircraft. Wohlers Associates said GE Aviation has announced it will use 3-D printed fuel nozzles on its next-generation LEAP engine.

Final part production is now nearly one-third of total spending, and Caffrey thinks direct manufacturing is expected to far surpass prototyping applications for 3-D printed parts.

The technology is growing rapidly. The 3-D printing industry took 20 years to reach $1 billion in size. In five more years it reached $2 billion, according to Wohlers Associates. By 2015, it is expected to double again, to $4 billion.

Four years from now, Wohlers Associates thinks the market will approach $6 billion.

Wohlers Report 2013 runs 297 pages.