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Editorial: Will 3D Printing Catch the Eye of Big Business?

Additive manufacturing (AM) is growing rapidly (no pun intended). According to Wohlers Associates the industry had a compound annual growth rate of 24.1% last year and is expected to hit $5.2 billion by 2020. As far as worldwide sales go, that’s still small change. By way of comparison, Americans alone spend around $8 billion on potato chips each year.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the future for AM is bright and will only continue to get brighter. Medical use of AM is growing into an industry all its own, particularly if you include dentistry into the mix. Nearly every major industry has been impacted in some way by AM. That is bound to draw some attention.

3D Printed GE "Light bulbs"

3D printed GE logo from Maker Faire. Courtesy of GE.

It’s easy to think of Stratasys and 3D Systems as large corporations, and in the AM industry that evaluation would be correct. When you compare the numbers, the picture looks a little different. 3D Systems reported revenues of $230.4 million for 2011 and Stratasys clocked in at $121.1 million for the same year. To put those numbers into some kind of perspective, Apple spent $933 million in 2011 on advertising alone.

A fair number of people I spoke with RAPID 2012 wondered aloud at what the industry would look like if big business took a serious interest in the technology. Implications of natural disasters abounded with that scenario — with people tossing out words like “earthquake” and “tsunami.” In other words, the impact would be tremendous.

This isn’t just idle speculation. At the Farnborough Airshow, the potential of AM for the aerospace industry had significant buzz. GE went on the record calling AM a “new star” in its portfolio. If General Electric takes it into its head to get into the AM game, it will be able to take advantage of an established name and solid distribution channels.

Another hint that big business might be considering dipping its toe into AM came more recently when Hewlett Packard and Stratasys discontinued a manufacturing and distribution agreement that began in 2010. Does that mean that HP isn’t ready to promote and distribute 3D printers, or does it mean that the paper-and-ink printer behemoth might have decided to produce its own 3D printers?

We can only speculate so far. It does seem reasonable to guess that a larger corporation would have the means and capital to produce 3D printers at a high enough volume that it could lower costs to the point undercutting the current market. If you look at the home market, a company like HP could also produce quality systems at a price point that would make them attractive to big box stores and individual consumers.

Below you’ll find a video that discusses the potential of 3D printing.

Sources: Stratasys, ATW, 3D Systems, MacRumors, Washington Post

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About John Newman

John Newman is a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering magazine. He covers the rapid prototyping and manufacturing beat.

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