An explosion of affordably priced three-dimensional printers fueled the third straight year of growth for rapid prototyping machines in 2005, according to the Wohlers Report 2006, issued by Wohlers Associates Inc.
Terry Wohlers, a rapid prototyping consultant in Fort Collins, Colo., said the global market for machinery, materials and services experienced double-digit growth in 2005. That followed a ``spectacular'' 2004, considered a benchmark year when the industry began to explode.
North America is the largest market for rapid prototyping, accounting for 42.3 percent of the systems installed worldwide, according to Wohlers Associates, based in Fort Collins.
The report said prices for 3-D printers have gone down in the past couple of years, and will drop even lower as sales volumes swell. Adding to the low-priced trend are firms like Desktop Factory Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., which is selling 3-D printers in the $5,000-$7,000 range in 2007 - the firm wants to sell them even for home use.
Wohlers Associates estimates that six companies sold 3-D printers valued at $100.2 million in 2005 - Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.; Z Corp. of Burlington, Mass.; 3D Systems Corp. of Valencia,. Calif.; Objet Geometries Ltd. of Rehovot, Israel; Envisiontec GmbH of Gladbeck, Germany; and Solidimension Ltd. of Be'erot Itzhak, Israel.
That 3-D printer total marked a 35.2 percent increase from the $74.1 million sold in 2004. The machines now are sold in 70 countries
Wohlers said 3-D printers make up 44.3 percent of all rapid prototyping machines sold worldwide in 2005. He expects strong growth over the next several years, to about 15,000 printers sold each year by 2010, if the global economy stays relatively strong.
Also growing is rapid manufacturing - the direct production of finished goods using rapid prototyping machines, not just models or prototypes. Wohlers said about 10 percent of companies that do rapid prototyping do some rapid manufacturing.
Rapid manufacturing may never directly compete against well-established, high-volume manufacturing processes such as injection molding and die casting. Instead, Wohlers said, it ``will become the preferred choice for new kinds of products that are not feasible with existing manufacturing processes.''
He said the service provider sector continues its come-back. These third-party prototype houses ``have positioned themselves for sustained growth,'' he said.