Metal additive manufacturing was growing just fine through 2019 on the heels of advances in printers by GE, HP, and others. This was followed by developments in materials that made the process more attractive. That expansion halted in the first quarter of 2020 as the worldwide pandemic hit. With the current economic downturn, IDTechEx expects the industry to see a significant decline in 2020 with multiple years needed for full recovery.
IDTechEx sees evidence that pre-arranged investments, certifications, and orders have all carried on. Some even say that additive manufacturing has gained prominence during this pandemic, as manufacturers address vulnerabilities in their supply chain. Also, the capabilities of metal additive technology have been demonstrated in meeting the need for ventilator parts. Yet the reality beyond these small victories, is that the market impact has been profound and recovery will not be immediate.
Developments in the additive metal market after COVID-19 are uncertain. The technology was expanding before the downturn, and it is likely to continue expanding after the pandemic passes. “The growth of additive manufacturing after COVID-19 depends significantly on the process and applications of the technology. A small acceleration will be seen following the pandemic, but the continuation of the growth we have seen pre-2020 will resume only after a few years of recovery,” Richard Collins, principal analyst at IDTechEx, told Design News. “The growth rates will be split by different technologies and applications.”
The Comeback Will Be Uneven
IDTechEx noted that the growth of metal additive manufacturing will be uneven across industries. “The fastest area to spring back will be material sales as players with an installed base will look to utilize them,” said Collins. “IDTechEx anticipates most of the annual market revenue will come from materials. This is a significant sector that is seeing some notable developments. The developments include expansions, vertical integration with key sectors, and joint developments.”
The fall-off in the metal additive manufacturing market follows the obvious patterns in the current economic contraction. Automotive and aerospace have been slammed. Yet the importance of additive to aerospace, in particular, suggests a strong eventual return to growth. “Automotive certainly has been hit hard, but the most significant hit for additive manufacturing is – and will continue to be – aerospace. Additive manufacturing is still predominantly used in high-value areas and aerospace has been a key part of that,” said Collins. “The news of job cuts, planes grounded, and poor financial performances are well known from Airbus, Boeing, and other key players.”
The Bright Spots in the Market
Even with the downturn in metal additive manufacturing growth, there are still plenty of hopeful developments for the technology. Some industries have just not seen a downturn for additive. “There have been some positive news stories in the first and second quarters of 2020 with orders, material qualification, and more. Some of that is likely coming from prior agreements and budgets,” said Collins.
Metal additive manufacturing in the medical sector has been a particularly bright light. “There have been silver linings, and one of them has been the medical sector,” said Collins. “Many metal additive manufacturing companies have pivoted and responded to the urgent needs in the medical industry. The response to the crisis demonstrates the versatility and capability of the additive manufacturing processes.”
Progress Marches On
Even while the additive manufacturing industry is experiencing a setback, the technology continues to develop. “There are also progressions for new materials, atomization processes, and the use of alternate feedstocks,” said Collins. “We are also seeing an accelerating number of new printer processes, and they’re often trying to differentiate themselves with a new name. We do not expect all of these to find a suitable niche and gain successful adoption, so we anticipate a consolidation over the next decade.”
Collins noted that the current decade will end with metal additive manufacturing flourishing. “By 2030, there will be a wide range of applications, some that the industry is rapidly progressing towards, and many that are currently unknown,” said Collins. “Partnerships, strategic investments, and vertical integrations are all indicative of markets preparing for these future opportunities.”
2020 Is Not a Year for Investments
Part of the sluggishness in the metal additive market has to do with the high cost of investing in the equipment. “The reality is that current printers are expensive – in excess of $1m in many cases – and even with a good value proposition it will be difficult for end-users to justify that expenditure both in 2020 and for a few years to come,” said Collins.
Given the high price of the equipment, many manufacturers are seeking alternatives. “It should be noted that there is a trend to low-cost variants that are beginning to gain traction. In most cases, these variants will not directly replace the incumbent powder bed fusion machines,” said Collins. “Yet they will allow the industry to expand into new directions. The majority of these are at an early stage, but they are a sign of a positive future in the longer-term.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.