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Trends in 3D printing

September 24, 2014

3D printing is advancing fast and will not only affect manufacturing directly but wll have many second-order impacts which could cause ripples in the futures of many industries.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), builds three-dimensional objects through adding successive layers of material. Designs can be from CAD systems or from the 3D scan of a physical object. Early 3D printing equipment and materials were developed in the 1980s, and in 1990 the plastic extrusion technology most widely associated with the term “3D printing” was commercialised. By 2005 the home use or hobbyist market had become established.

A large number of additive processes are now available, using different methods and materials. Printers that work directly with metals are expensive, and so, often, less expensive printers are used to make a mould, which is then used to make metal parts.


Our recent scanning activity has identified a number of trends:

  • the size of the 3D printing market is growing rapidly from US$2.5 billion globally in 2013, forecasted to reach US$16.2 billion by 2018
  • the cost of the printers is dropping dramatically, with domestic printers available at $500 and DIY kits from as little as $70
  • printer design files are beginning to be stored, shared and sold eg US National Institute of Health exchange site
  • the material base is expanding to include ceramics, metal alloys, flesh, and even food; filament materials have been developed to imitate wood; carbon fibre can be infused into printable plastics, allowing for a stronger, lighter materia

Early warning signals

We have seen a number of significant early warning events:

  • We are beginning to see printers capable of producing complex products (Red Bull racing are using to prototype racing car parts) with multiple materials, different colours, embedded electronics and moving parts
  • The confluence of robotics and 3D printing means that structures can now be built that are much larger than the printer producing them, potentially enabling the printing of large structures, such as houses.
  • 3D printing of concrete offers the promise to create new structures quickly and without the cost associated with shuttering necessary for traditional poured concrete construction.


The most common and interesting applications emerging are:

  • Rapid prototyping: 3D printing allows manufacturers to adjust designs very easily and cheaply – the aerospace industry is taking a lead
  • Spare parts: 3D printing makes on-demand production of single items economic and so it becomes unnecessary to hold stocks of a large range of infrequently required spare parts, eg for planes, cars or trains. This in turn makes it more economic to maintain rather than replace the vehicle.
  • Mass customisation: by amending the 3D model, individualised products can be produced to meet unique requirements. Artistic items like jewellery are popular products of this kind.
  • Medical applications (including bio-printing): to overcome shortages of donors bio-printed organs will become a possibility. Knee or hip replacements specifically designed to fit the individual have been produced ensuring greater fit and comfort. 3D printers have been used to help children receive cost-effective prosthetics, a particular benefit in developing countries. In addition, 3D printing also created a skull implant for an adult human patient.

Potential secondary impact

One secondary impact we looked at was on traffic flows and freight transport patterns as manufacturing supply chains changed. If desktop factories in the home flourished, there could be significant effects as local shopping declined, and the infrastructure for moving goods is replaced by that for distributing feedstock (the raw material), with greater standardisation and automation of freight. This would have impacts across the range of transport systems, reducing global freight transport by sea and air, reducing the need ports, railheads and warehousing, limiting long-distance road transport to that for feedstocks which would also require greater local delivery services.

This is just one of potentially hundreds of secondary impacts that could affect many industries. Thinking through the implications may be critical to business success.

Written by Huw Williams.

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