3D printing: Continued growth and expanded applications on the horizon

3D printing filamentEver since the idea of “printing” parts with polymer powders containing a binder came onto the scene, it’s been a roller-coaster ride. During all of the ups and downs of the 3D printing/additive manufacturing sector, however, the notion that one could actually make plastic parts without a mold has maintained a grip on the imaginations of many manufacturers.

Gordon Styles, founder and President of Star Rapid, a company that provides 3D printing and injection molding services from its manufacturing facility in Zhongshan, China, notes that much of the struggle the industry endured was because it wasn’t founded on “proper economics.”

After the latest dip in the 2014-2015 time period, people began recognizing an underlying reality: There are opportunities and there will be a lot of growth, particularly in the metals sector, which Styles estimates to be around $250 million today and will grow to about $8 billion in the next decade. “Metals are the production sector,” Styles told PlasticsToday in a phone interview. “That’s a very big market.”

What’s happening, Styles explained, is that “some of the big boys are scrambling for additional market share.” GE, for example, a year ago acquired 73.5% of Arcam AB and 75% of Concept Laser to further its presence in the additive manufacturing space. “There is a signed MoU relating to a strategic collaboration in additive manufacturing between GE and GKN, an engineering group that operates in the aviation and automotive markets globally. GE will provide a provision of machines and services to position GKN as a development and production partner; in exchange, GKN will become a non-exclusive preferred powder supplier to GE and its affiliated companies. GE is trying to take control of the entire manufacturing bureau sector, not necessarily by acquiring companies, but [by allowing] anyone who wants to set up a service bureau to contact GE [which will] provide the machine,” Styles commented.“GE wants to take the entire service bureau sector by stealth. That is an extremely bold idea.”

Mergers and acquisitions, and even partnerships, in the additive manufacturing sector was the hot news coming out of formnext 2017, which was held in Frankfurt, Germany, on Nov. 14 to 17. “Almost everybody is being courted by somebody,” commented Styles, who projects that “M&A will continue as people scramble to enter the market.”

What's new and what's next in 3D printing will be a focus at the co-located Medical Design and Manufacturing (MD&M) and PLASTEC West event in Anaheim, CA. Explore 3D printing technologies across the show floor, and learn about the technology through tours, activities, demos and conference sessions during the three-day event on Feb. 6 to 8, 2018. Register now and enter promo code PLASTICSTODAY to receive a 20% discount on conference sessions.

It’s a different story when it comes to plastics. The idea is still floating around that at some point 3D printing technology will produce plastic parts in volume and compete with injection molding, eliminating the need for molds. While that is an attractive idea to many OEMs who would like to reduce the cost of injection molding, it remains lodged in the distant future.

Putting a fleet of laser sintering machines in a large room and turning them all on to print the same part isn’t what many manufacturers have in mind when it comes to making high volumes of parts. Moldmakers can breathe a sigh of relief probably for another decade or so.

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