The 3D printing industry has seen rapid growth, and huge gains in stock values for the industry’s top companies. Companies are increasingly turning to 3D printing for new product development because it saves time and money compared with traditional prototyping methods. Despite the growth so far, the future looks exceptionally bright for this burgeoning industry.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. It is achieved using an additive process in which successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is thus distinct from traditional machining techniques, which rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes). This would include the typical CNC machining processes in which a computer-controlled machine starts with a block of material and cuts away part of the block to reveal the finished product (such as a wheel for a car from an aluminum ingot).
The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. (ticker symbol DDD) The 3D printing technology was applied first to prototyping, starting in the 1980s, creating rapid prototyping. Its expansion into production (job production, mass production and distributed manufacturing) took several decades to develop.
Since 2000, there has been a large growth in the sales of 3D printing machines, and their prices have dropped substantially.
According to Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm, the market for 3D printers and services was worth $2.2 billion worldwide in 2012, up 29% from 2011. The market grew to roughly $3 billion in 2013. Estimates for future growth vary widely, but many believe that industry growth will accelerate from current levels and could reach $10 billion or more within the next 10 years.
The applications for 3D printing are numerous, and include architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food and many other fields.
The bioprinting market is extremely interesting and could grow to $3 billion annually within a few years. The printing of human tissue replacement is very exciting and could revolutionize the effectiveness of transplant science.
The largest company in the industry, 3D Systems, recently offered 5.95 million shares in a secondary offering. Although its share price fell immediately following the offering, the company was able to raise more than $300 million. The offering includes a 30-day option to purchase an additional 892,500 shares, which would bring the total raised closer to $370 million.
3D Systems said it plans to use the money for working capital and future acquisitions. 3D Systems has spent more than a half-billion dollars buying nearly 50 companies in the past four years, a pace that shows little sign of slowing.
In April, M3D, a small start-up firm, launched a Kickstarter campaign that ultimately netted it $3.4 million by pre-selling more than 11,000 3-D printers with a top price of $299. Their machines are intended for in-home use, and are obviously drawing a lot of interest.
Last week, Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry wrote that “Both Google and probably Apple are working on some 3D all-in-one printing technologies focused on consumers," which may be up for sale in as little as a year.
General Electric researchers have been developing new technologies in additive manufacturing for more than 20 years. The company sees 3D printing as the next chapter in the industrial revolution. GE is committed to connecting with other innovators and growing a global additive ecosystem to accelerate the growth of this emerging industry. It has a full-scale additive manufacturing facility in Cincinnati focused on the development and scale-up of new alloys, processes and parts for additive use. It has a global team of 600 engineers at 21 sites driving additive and other advanced manufacturing technologies.
One Goleta company, Applied Cavitation Inc., is addressing an interesting segment of the 3D printing market — 3D inks. The terminology of 3D printers and inks is a bit misleading, however, as printers build various products through processes such as extrusion deposition, granular materials binding, lamination, photopolymerization, mask-image-projection-based stereolithography, etc., out of “inks” such as plastic filament, aluminum substrates, thermoplastics, photopolymers, truecast (wax-like material), gelatin bioink and many others.
Applied Cavitation can produce a wide array of 3D ink materials, especially medium- and high-viscosity inks that are very difficult to disperse (mix together) and that have broad-based applications in many industries.
The inability for companies to disperse materials has been a stumbling block to the development of new products using 3D printing. Applied Cavitation is solving this problem with a proprietary, elegant and innovative solution called applied cavitation (hence the company name) through which cavitation — the creation and bursting of bubbles in a vacuum create shock waves that are focused on materials to fully disperse them and reduce particle sizes dramatically, making the material highly effective for 3D printing.
The 3D printing industry is in the very early stages of development. Although it is difficult to predict how fast it will grow, and which new product areas will develop the fastest, it is clear that companies increasingly turn to 3D printing to create new products because it is fast and it saves money.
Companies like Applied Cavitation that supply other companies with the tools they need to create new products through the 3D printing process stand to benefit greatly as the industry expands exponentially.