Regional TrendsTopics

Additive manufacturing, 3D printing this disruptive trends worth following

While much of the public focus for additive manufacturing – commonly known as 3D printing – has been on the home hobbyist market the true value for the technology in the next decade will come from supplementing and displacing existing manufacturing processes. These new business models, and the opportunities they will create for material suppliers, are analysed and quantified in the forthcoming Smithers market report – The Future of 3D Printing Materials for Industrial Applications to 2026.

Nascent market

The first industrial applications for 3D printing were in rapid prototyping. This rests on the capabilities of 3D print to accelerate early-stage product development by cutting the time to design and machine the multiple experimental iterations required for optimising the design for a complex engineered part or product.

Today, prototyping with 3D print is being extended to allow more accurate production of moulds and tooling, as well as creating the prospect for new approaches towards the final design of a product.

The advantages of prototyping will be felt in all industries, but as new 3D processes and higher performance materials come to market there is scope for them to replace existing commercial production processes. Smithers’ exclusive analysis identifies the market application sectors that across the next decade will create the largest market for additive manufacturing materials as:




These industries are already among the earliest adopters of 3D machinery for prototyping – representing of 50% of market value in 2016 – which will accelerate the technology’s transition into higher-volume production. 

As this happens there are six horizontal technology and market trends which will pull 3D printing and materials into the market and spur its deployment for high-value industrial applications. These will help power the transformation of a market valued at $5 billion in 2015 to one worth $60 billion in 2026.

Disrupting manufacturing 

Additive manufacturing genuinely deserves to be classified as a disruptive technology for traditional manufacturers as it has the potential to replace traditional plastic and metal moulding, and could eliminate the need for multi-part assembly of complex engineered structures altogether.

Its presence on the market today is still nascent however. A value of $5 billion represents around just 0.04% of global manufacturing added value, which was roughly $13 trillion in 2015. This highlights that there is a huge market for 3D print to grow into as and when market opportunities are identified, and the cost profile and performance of a 3D printed part can be justified.

Expanding material sets

Additive manufacturing is a highly competitive market. This has the benefit of pushing further innovation in 3D printer design, and reducing the price of equipment, and the materials they consume.

In 2016, 3D printing has already developed rapidly beyond its initial basic polymer material set. Additive manufacturing systems have been demonstrated that work with at least 20 different types of plastics, photopolymers, various metal and metal alloys, ceramics, and even human tissue.

The burgeoning range of options will help open a myriad of markets, especially as equipment suppliers also respond to the demand to deliver platforms capable of finer resolution, higher print speeds, larger print areas, and depositing multiple materials form a single print array.

Lightweighting designs

Over the past 20 years, many industries, but especially the aerospace and automotive sectors, have been driving to design lower weight parts. Less weight translates into greater fuel efficiency, which is increasingly important for customers like airlines and fleet operators. In some markets this coincides with tightening environmental regulation, like the European Union’s private vehicle emission reduction targets.

Early weight reduction strategies involved finding ways to use lighter weight metals, such as aluminium, to replace heavier steels; or replacing metal altogether with plastic where feasible. In high-performance applications like the wings of aircraft carbon fibre has arrived to present a viable, if expensive solution. 

Other light-weighting strategies involve designing parts in a way that uses less material, by for example reducing the thickness by, for example, replacing traditional sheet-metal with an advanced high-strength steel (AHSS).

The market imperative means that simple material switch strategies have now largely been exhausted. The new frontier is to use 3D print to produce lighter weight parts, as it enables complex part designs that traditional plastic or metal moulding is unable to reproduce.

This can include moving to hollow parts that require complex, precisely positioned interior strengthening components – such as cross bars – that are impossible with moulding manufacturing. As 3D printing is additive, interior reinforcement of a part can simply be printed in an additive component, as well as hidden from the external view of the design. This is an option for both plastic and metal parts.

Shifting value points

Market acceptance of 3D printing in manufacturing is based on the understanding that it is cheaper than existing plastic processing techniques – such as injection moulding – for fabricating single parts or a limited number of parts. As part count increases, traditional plastic or metal processing technologies become much more economical compared to 3D printing. This is focusing the industrial 3D print market towards applications with higher unit values and limited part counts.

Over the next 5 to 10 years, manufacturing sectors are looking to change the way they view their own supply chains. As this happens 3D printing processes will slowly be added to realise faster time to market, both for finished parts, and in the creation of moulds for higher volume production.

While injection-moulded parts can be made much faster than 3D parts, there are times when the thermal conductivity or thermal dissipation within the injection mould is insufficient. This can seriously affect the overall integrity of the part – leading to a high level of rejections. In such applications, a 3D printed part can offer better efficiency as its incremental construction does not suffer from these thermal dissipation factors.

Better time to market

Faster time to market, and just-in-time delivery for finished products are becoming drivers in the manufacturing supply chain, with 3D printing processes and technologies poised to help meet this. It will therefore be very important for manufacturers to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of different 3D printing equipment and materials, and ensure they select the platform that aligns with their specific manufacturing needs.

This concept of faster time to market in the supply chain is also supported by the increasing use of online product ordering in B2C and B2B models. In some cases it may be practical for the consumer or business to order the finished product or part online, and have it printed locally or near to the end-use location. This distributed manufacturing model is already done on a very limited basis by government and military entities, but is also being developed commercially for remote location repairs, like in offshore oil and gas facilities.

Caption: As 3D printing technology evolves it will drive improved manufacturing economics so that 3D printing can increasingly compete at higher-scale part counts when compared to today.

Finishing time

Though 3D print is likely to always be a slower process than mass blow moulding, it currently requires post-fabrication actions that are further retarding its market entry, which can be overcome.

The first issue is that 3D print technologies can leave a rough surface finish, which means parts often require extra finishing steps, adding both cost and time to production budgets.

An additional cost element for 3D technologies is that most printed parts require some type of ‘support structures’, which are usually an extra printed ancillary component that literally supports the part as it is being printed to prevent sagging and changes in orientation. This adds extra cost of raw material, and again requires additional post-build processing to remove the supports.

This is a major requirement for stereolithography (SLA) processes, other liquid-born polymers technology and even fused filament fabrications (FFF). The exceptions are powder bed fusion (PBF) machines, where a part can be supported by the surrounding powder bed out of which is it fabricated.


No technology exists in a static landscape, and this is particularly true 3D printing. As demand grows, larger material suppliers will enter, driving innovation to overcome the issues identified above.

The prospects for this occurring and exclusive market data on how the global 3D industrial print material market will evolve across the next 10 years will be available in the Smithers Pira’s report The Future of 3D Printing Materials for Industrial Applications to 2026.


Smithers Pira is the worldwide authority on packaging, paper and print industry supply chains. Established in 1930, Smithers Pira provides strategic and technical consulting, testing, intelligence and events to help clients gain market insights, identify opportunities, evaluate product performance and manage compliance.

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker