Rise and rise of 3D printing

Continued governmental support, coupled with the UK’s existing engineering capabilities, should see 3D printing become a central manufacturing technology, as Jim Woodcock reports


In reality “3D printing” is an umbrella term that refers to tens of widely differing technologies, processing hundreds of materials for thousands of applications. Tracking such a diverse set of tools poses some challenges, but the overall trend has been, and continues to be, one of significant growth. By splitting the industry into non-professional and professional sectors, two distinct stories come to the fore and the term “additive manufacturing” becomes important.

For the consumer getting access to 3D-printed parts by owning and running your own 3D printer is an increasingly viable option as prices tumble and usability increases. It’s still not an option for the faint hearted as a significant amount of skill is required in the digital design, file processing and finally printing of a part. Downloading content to print at home is more accessible and many repositories – cubify.com, thingiverse.com, youmagine.com – cater for this market.

According to the Wohlers Report 2013, growth in the home 3D-printer market averaged 346 per cent each year from 2008 through 2011. In 2012, the increase cooled significantly to an estimated 46.3 per cent, though this growth rate is still exceptional in the hardware sector.

Many services now exist that run professional 3D printers, normally out of reach of the average consumer, and make them available through sophisticated online portals. With this route anyone has the ability to have parts printed in materials such as bronze, sterling silver and even solid gold. Shapeways, i.materialise and Sculpteo all operate variations on this model, substantially increasing the possibilities for non-professional users and reducing the barrier to adoption.

Users of 3D printers in their homes are supplying parts to enterprises in a complete reversal of the normal process

Another emerging trend is the use of networks of home 3D printers to have parts produced locally, controlled through a central online hub. This system is increasingly opening up the consumer-to-business model, whereby users of 3D printers in their homes are supplying parts to enterprises in a complete reversal of the normal process.

For the professional side of the industry, growth is anticipated from nearly all existing sectors and from new applications coming online. Historically, prototyping applications have dominated 3D printing use in industry. For nearly 30 years, 3D-printed parts have been used in the development of everything from mobile phones to cars. Today the major shift is towards using the 3D-printed parts themselves in the final product, opening up options of customisation and design freedom like never before. Use of 3D printing in this space is often referred to as additive manufacturing, though the terms are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

3D printing is already changing lives in the healthcare sector where the ability to create complex organic shapes as one-off parts is key to personalised treatment. Prosthetics, implants and tools that help surgeons can be created as one-offs, completely personalised to the patient. Growth for this sector is anticipated to be high as materials suitable for use in the body are developed.

The UK has a relatively well-established additive-manufacturing and 3D-printing market with estimates around 4 per cent of the global total. Government-backed research in both the public and private sectors is healthy, though with 38 per cent of market share, the United States is leading the development and uptake of the technologies.