I’m open to the suggestion that I may be a little biased on the subject, but I think this past year no other technology has proven that it will completely alter the world the way that 3D printing has. 2015 certainly saw plenty of amazing technology come into its own, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the year’s big developments are still decades away from making any real world impact. The self-driving cars from Google are impressive and are probably at the very least the future of mass transit, but they’re still years away from hitting the road, and the artificial intelligence that will run them is almost embryonic in its development. But additive manufacturing has had quite the year, and I think one that will go down in the history books as the point of no return when the end of traditional manufacturing as we know it became inevitable.
2015 was nothing short of a transformative year for 3D printing, and while it may have seen the bottom fall out from under two of the industry’s biggest companies when Stratasys and 3D Systems took massive hits to their stock prices, it hasn’t slowed down the sales of 3D printers. In fact, not only did the industry grow yet again this year, but it is expected to continue to grow well into 2020. The shaky financial positions of two of the industry’s heavy hitters is less a symptom of 3D printing’s bubble bursting and more a sign that people are becoming much more savvy when it comes to 3D printing technology.
Both Stratasys and 3D Systems focused rather heavily on the desktop 3D printer market last year and frankly they were a little less than straightforward with what their technology was capable of. But rather than get angry or frustrated and leave 3D printing altogether, it seems that many consumers just started migrating to other 3D printer manufacturers. The meteoric success of companies like XYZprinting, Flashforge and Robo 3D is testament that the desire for 3D printers is alive and kicking, consumers are just looking for more value and fewer bells and whistles. The fact that the largest companies in the industry can falter while everyone else grows is a pretty good indication that 3D printing has reached a point where the technology is more important than the companies that sell it.
While that is a milestone for 3D printing in general, it isn’t the reason that this year was such an important year for 3D printing — that would be found on the industrial side of the industry. This past year worldwide sales of industrial metal 3D printers jumped by more than 45% compared to sales during the same period last year. More larger companies than ever are investing in advanced metal 3D printing technology, and they are using it to do more than just make prototypes. According to a survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2014, two-thirds of surveyed companies are using 3D printing techniques, and metal 3D printing is being used to manufacture end use products and parts in 11% of the manufacturing companies that they spoke to. A general rule of thumb for any manufacturing technology is that when it reaches 20% adoption rate it becomes mainstream, so if industrial 3D printing continues to grow at the same rate that it is now the industry will reach that point in only a few years.
GE is probably one of the largest companies to use metal 3D printers to make parts for products as varied as jet engines, medical devices and implants, and even components used in home appliances. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have both been using 3D printed metal parts in their jets and engines, and car manufacturers like BMW have so fully integrated 3D printing and 3D design software into their workflow that at this point it would be virtually impossible to eliminate it. And let’s not forget the fact that 3D printed metal parts are being used to create the most advanced rocket engines in history thanks to NASA and SpaceX.
Additionally this year the industry is expected to get some big names jumping onto the 3D printing bandwagon. Not only is HP Inc. getting ready to launch their first 3D printer in 2016, but they developed an entirely new technology to make it possible. Imaging and optical equipment powerhouse Canon recently showed off a 3D printer at a company event in Paris that they developed and will bring to market soon. And electronics manufacturing company Ricoh recently teamed up with Aspect Inc. to co-develop a new SLS 3D printer. The fact that massive corporations are getting into the 3D printing business is really a stamp of approval from the mainstream tech industry and proof that this is more than just a hobbyist market.
This past year was so important to the industry because 2015 was when additive manufacturing became a proven commodity. It works, it offers value to the companies that use it and many of those companies consider it an invaluable and irreplaceable part of their business. 3D printing is now, officially, here and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Much like the telephone, the copy machine, the fax machine and the personal computer before it, the 3D printer is now an essential office tool that is finding uses in an ever widening range of industries and businesses.
There is simply no other technology that proved itself the way that 3D printing and additive manufacturing has this year, and nothing even came close to it. 2015 is the year that 3D printing stopped being emergent technology but just became emerged technology. Discuss your favorite story of 2015 in the 3D Printing 2015 Forum on 3DPB.com.