It wasn’t long ago that generating 3D prototypes in house was the province of big manufacturers and outside service bureaus. Not anymore.
Industry experts who have watched the rapid prototyping industry for years, such as Terry Wohlers and Todd Grimm, point to surging interest in 3D printers as the catalyst for making in-house prototyping a reality for more and more small and medium-sized companies.
With 3D printers priced in the $15,000 to $30,000 range, this equipment now has become a realistic investment for an increasing number of companies. “Most of the firms responsible for the bulk of product development are small,” notes Wohlers, president of the Colorado-based Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that closely tracks the rapid prototyping and CAD marketplace. “When you look at what you get for your dollar in 3D printers, the case for buying a system has become very compelling.”
“There’s tremendous pent-up demand out there,” adds Grimm, president of T.A Grimm Associates, Edgewood, KY, who notes that prices for 3D printers have declined steadily from the $40,000 to $60,000 of just a few years ago. He points to one California startup – Desktop Factory – that plans to introduce a 3D printer for under $7,000, using an inexpensive halogen light source and drum printing technology to build parts layer by layer from composite plastic powder.
Meanwhile, the quality of 3D printers has risen, according to experts. “Most people who use this equipment are definitely putting the stamp of reliability on systems from such companies as Dimension and Z-Corp,” says Grimm. “So from every standpoint – cost, maintenance, and training – 3D printers have become a very reasonable investment.”
Industry sales bear that out. In May 2006, Wohlers Associates published an in-depth study of the rapid prototyping market, which showed that the sales for additive fabrication grew by 14.6% in 2005 to $808.5 million. Wohlers points out that 3D printers accounted for 70% of those sales, versus more expensive stereolithography and laser sintering systems, where prices typically start at $200,000 and can run as much as a million dollars.
Now, says Wohlers, companies with as few as five or ten employees are buying 3D printers. As he explains it, by generating 3D models that people can see and touch, the equipment helps engineers and designers to optimize their designs and to solicit ideas from management, marketing, vendors and potential customers. Equally significant, companies routinely show these models to tooling vendors, who often suggest changes that can significantly reduce tooling and manufacturing costs, according to Wohlers.
Grimm notes that the costs of generating parts in-house is easily half of what outside service bureaus charge companies for producing prototypes.
As long as a firm has at least one engineer skilled in 3D CAD modeling, Wohlers does not see much of a learning curve in adjusting to 3D printing systems. “It’s just a trivial matter of a keystroke to send an STL file to the printer,” says Wohlers. He adds that it is rare nowadays for companies to buy a 3D printer and have it gather dust. “If anything, companies end up wanting to buy a second or third machine.”
Most companies are using 3D printers for design optimization, but there are instances where the quality of parts generated by 3D printing processes meets the standards for production parts, particularly in low-volume applications. Wohlers cites the example of a camera mount for the gun sights on the M1 Abrams tank. Using a 3D printer from the Dimension Printing Group of Stratasys, Inc., Virginia’s EOIR Technology built 40 mounts out of ABS modeling materials.
In more cases, too, according to Wohlers, companies that start with a 3D printer eventually add a stereolithography or laser sintering equipment for more elaborate prototypes, or for rapid manufacturing of low volume but high-priced parts for such applications as aerospace, motor sports, medical and dental.
Grimm agrees that although 3D printing will account for the “lion’s share” of sales in rapid prototyping equipment in the coming years, there will continue to be a healthy market for more expensive machines needed for high-volume quantities, more sophisticated or bigger components, or for use in shaping exotic materials.
All these trends combine to position the rapid prototyping industry for strong growth. The mid-year forecast projected global sales of $935 million for 2006, says Wohlers, a projected 15% increase over the 2005 sales figures, and he sees no sign of a weakening in sales.
Grimm agrees. Besides engineering departments, the popular 3D systems are going into colleges, high schools and even middle schools, he says. The consultant envisions the day when there will be a desktop unit for every three to five engineers. “There’s just phenomenal growth ahead. We haven’t even scratched the surface of this market.”