PITTSBURGH — Interest in the long-established, yet seemingly brand-new technology known as additive manufacturing — or is it 3-D printing? — of plastics and metals is booming. Plain and simple.
Anyone who doubts that needed only to stop by the Rapid 2013 Conference & Exposition, held June 10-13 in Pittsburgh, to drink the Kool-Aid. Attendance at the event, organized by the Dearborn, Mich.-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers, nearly doubled this year to more than 2,500, from 1,400 who attended the event last year in Atlanta. It also featured about 100 exhibitors.
Additionally, some 500 people showed up at 8 a.m. June 12 to hear keynote speaker Terry Wohlers, the additive manufacturing sector's recognized guru, declare: "I've never seen so much interest in this technology. It's unprecedented."
It's like flipping a switch, though a "slow flip," Wohlers noted, since this interest boom has been building for the past 12-18 months.
Wohlers, president of Fort Collins, Colo.-based Wohlers Associates Inc., has been tracking this industry for roughly a quarter-century, and recently published the 18th annual edition of the industry bible, "Wohlers Report," which monitors developments in the sector.
Additive manufacturing grew 28.6 percent last year, when counting all types of revenues including equipment sales and service-bureau fees, Wohlers said. He estimates media attention in the past 12 months has doubled, sparked in part by President Barack Obama's mentioning in his State of the Union address in February that the technology "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
Wohlers gave the gathering a sweeping overview of the sector, beginning with some basics of terminology and then including a look at additive manufacturing activity around the globe. For starters, he said the official, formal name for the technology is "additive manufacturing," as opposed to the subtractive technology of carving a shape from a larger chunk of material.
Even so, the mainstream media and nearly everyone but the scientific community refers to additive manufacturing as 3-D printing. To back up his point, he said his recent Google search yielded more than 10 million references to additive manufacturing, while 3-D printing turned up 208 million references.
"We use the terms interchangeably," he said, essentially putting the debate to rest.
Regardless of what one calls it, Wohlers said that due to the recent explosion of popular interest, there's an "illusion that this is a brand-new technology."
"That's not true; it's been around for 25 years," he said.
Helping to drive media attention is the rise of affordable, personal 3-D printers that cost anywhere between $200 and $5,000. That category grew by 46.4 percent last year, with 35,000 personal printers sold in 2012, vs. the 7,771 industrial systems sold worldwide. The latter includes machines that cost between $5,001 and $1.5 million each.
The U.S. accounts for 38 percent of all the industrial systems sold globally, Wohlers said, followed by Japan (9.7 percent), Germany (9.4 percent), China (8.7 percent), and other countries combined (34.2 percent and growing). The market is dominated by two mega-players — 3D Systems Corp., with a market capitalization of $4.3 billion, and Stratasys Ltd., with a market cap of $3.2 billion.
That said, the U.S. is losing its leadership position in terms of additive-manufacturing equipment production. Wohlers noted that of the manufacturers of industrial additive systems, 16 now are in Europe, seven are in China and only five are in the U.S. Four of those U.S. firms sold a total of only 35 systems last year, he noted.
Major industrial users include firms such as Honeywell Aerospace and GE Aviation, the latter of which has said it will invest $3.5 billion in additive manufacturing over the next five years. GE has said that it can use additive manufacturing to produce a metallic fuel nozzle that is 25 percent lighter and five times more durable than its current nozzle, and that it will be able to make 32,200 per year when it begins commercial production.
Nike Inc., meanwhile, already is using additive manufacturing commercially to produce new shoe soles. On the personal-user front, retailer Amazon.com has created a new section on its website devoted to 3-D printing.
Research labs are driving much of the innovation in this space, said Wohlers, specifically citing Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the fledgling public/private partnership National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in Youngstown, Ohio.
The country to watch, once again, is China, Wohlers said. The Chinese government's strategy is to buy its way into a global leadership position in 3-D printing. Beijing has pledged to invest 1.5 billion yuan ($245 million) in a seven-year project to spur development of the technology. Their goal: Be a global additive manufacturing leader within three years.
Wohlers participated in the 2013 World 3D Printing Technology Industry Conference in Beijing a few weeks ago (the Chinese only use the term 3-D printing, not additive manufacturing). He said the other speakers there referenced President Obama's State of the Union comments no less than five times. He said more than 600 very enthusiastic people attended the two-day event, including 100 members of the media.
A Beijing-funded trade group called the Asian Manufacturing Association aims to promote industrial cooperation within the 3-D printing industry by establishing 10 innovation institutes devoted to the technology, each starting with an investment of $3.3 million.
Additionally, Haier Group, an 80,000-employee Chinese home-appliance behemoth, plans to jump into the technology, with the assistance of the city of Qingdao, where it's based, according to a May 31 report in the China Daily newspaper.
Wohlers noted that a single Chinese company in Hefei is itself investing 750 million yuan to ramp up in 3-D printing.
3-D going global
Moving beyond China, Wohlers took a brief swing through other parts of Asia. He said Singapore is building a 3-D printing infrastructure, investing S$500 million (US$400 million) in a five-year advanced manufacturing program. Japan has a large installed additive manufacturing base, but its activity has slowed a bit. Australia is promoting the technology via a network of conferences, seminars and research it dubs "Technology Roadmap for Australia."
Wohlers described South Africa's Aeroswift as an important project currently in the works. Launched in 2011, the goal of the project is to design and build an additive manufacturing system capable of building large titanium parts, and building them fast. The South Africans purchased a 5-kilowatt, single-fiber diode laser that it said is 10 times faster than other laser systems. It also is building a powder-bed fusion system for titanium parts that can measure 79 by 24 by 24 inches. Project Aeroswift aims to have the machine completed by 2015.
The Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa, or RAPDASA, has created what it calls the "Idea 2 Product Lab" and is launching a new lab in the U.S. in conjunction with Colorado State University. It plans to house eight 3-D printing machines on the Fort Collins campus.
Germany also is active, but mostly in the area of big industrial systems, Wohlers said. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute was one of the early developers of the powder-bed system, and now researchers at Voxeljet Technology GmbH in Augsburg, Germany, are building what would be the first continuous 3-D printer (the VXC800), meaning it could make massively long parts. German auto¬maker BMW also has identified a number of plastic and metal components that it believes it can make via 3-D printing.
Back in North America, Wohlers said Canada has awakened to additive manufacturing, especially for its aerospace industry around Montreal.
Wohlers said the industry needs to encourage software makers such as Autodesk, Dassault Systemes, PTC, and Siemens to integrate 3-D printing programs into their systems, rather than offering them as add-ons, as they do now. (He said Autodesk already has 120 million consumer installations for the technology.)
Citing the growing shift in the manufacturing of 3-D printing systems to Europe and Asia, Wohlers said the U.S. has lost some of its edge in this space. But he still believes the technology will spur the launch of thousands of new companies and businesses. "The U.S. is a nation of business-minded innovators and independent thinkers," he noted, "and it's easy to start a new company."
It took 20 years for the additive manufacturing industry to achieve its first $1 billion in sales, Wohlers said. It took only five years for it to record its second billion and, while the sector faces many challenges, he sees it doubling again in the next three years. He projects in the "Wohlers Report" that additive manufacturing will be a $10.8 billion industry by 2021.
Not everyone is as bullish with their projections as Wohlers, but there is no denying that 3-D fever is spreading fast.