As 3D printing continues to mature and replace conventional manufacturing in some use cases, metal 3D printing continues to grow rapidly and gain market share in key applications and industries for producing high-quality, high-value end-use parts. From 2020 to 2030, we expect metal printer sales to grow at an 8% CAGR and printable metal materials sales to grow at a 16% CAGR. A wide and growing range of corporations, SMEs, academic institutions, and research organizations are advancing at the forefront of both metal printing technologies and commercial penetration. Key innovation areas include materials; part production; printing technologies like powder bed fusion, directed energy deposition, binder jet fusion, and wire feedstock printing; and a range of others, such as software and various niche processes.Each category is populated with a diverse set of players. To get a comprehensive overview of the technology landscape and distribution of players, we analyzed key developers with historical patent activity, academic publications, early-stage funding, and ongoing projects. This information serves to define future trends and, more importantly, helps identify opportunities for those seeking to engage with the metal 3D printing market.
Part production dominates the innovation landscape for corporations and SMEs
Historically, printer functionality and material availability and quality were key factors holding back metal printing's growth into end-use part production. However, in recent years, the processes and materials have become adequate for low- and medium-volume end-use part production (costs still limit viability at higher volumes), enabling many manufacturers to begin developing this aspect of the technology. As a result, 55% of corporations (54 out of 99) and 44% of SMEs (63 out of 142) are actively focusing on part production. Expect this trend to continue as existing materials and printer players continue to diversify and improve their offerings, enabling more and more part manufacturers to enter the market and develop methods to use these technologies in their products and industries.
The APAC region dominates the university landscape but lags in SMEs
Out of 431 total organizations represented in the data analyzed, the APAC region accounted for 169. However, of those, 137 were universities or research institutes, primarily universities in China. In contrast, APAC accounted for only 14 out of 106 SMEs and 18 out of 56 corporations. In comparison, the Americas and EMEA were much more closely matched, with the Americas having 45 corporations, 73 SMEs, and 37 research institutes, while EMEA had 31 corporations, 40 SMEs, and 36 research institutes. Globally, and especially in APAC, the scope of academic technology development remains broad and deep, despite the growing commercial maturity of the metal 3D printing industry.
SMEs & academics display the breadth of innovation activity, but corporations reflect the technology's scalability & commercial readiness
While corporations represent a distinct minority of overall innovation activity in metal 3D printing, their efforts are largely focused on the applications with large, well-defined markets with proven economics for 3D printing: aerospace, medical, prototyping, molds, and tooling, and to a lesser extent, electronics and software. In contrast, while they do also develop incremental improvements to what exists today, the work of SMEs and academic institutions is much more varied, reflecting the wide scope of potential future applications not quite ready for deployment at scale: novel alloys, part design techniques, unusual printing processes, and pushing the boundaries of attainable part geometries.
Powder bed fusion remains the predominant printing modality
This includes laser sintering, laser melting, and electron beam melting printers, which lay down and then selectively pattern layers of metal powder. These include the most established companies in this space, such as 3D Systems, Renishaw, EOS, Arcam/GE, and SLM Solutions, as well as newer entrants.
Directed energy deposition has fewer players but offers unique advantages
Directed Energy Deposition (DED) systems use a nozzle to deposit material on a surface while simultaneously melting that material (and/or the surface) using an energy source, usually a laser. Compared to powder bed fusion (PBF) printers, this enables multimaterial printing, printing on nonflat surfaces (including repairing existing parts), and integration into other machining equipment and manufacturing lines. This is the second-largest category for printer development.
Wire feedstock printers open the door to large-size parts
PBF printers require finely moving solid blocks of powder, which becomes difficult due to weight for large parts; available PBF printers top out at 1 m3 build volumes, and DED printers aren't much larger. In contrast, some wire-based printers can produce parts more than 6 m across, though the resolution is lower than that of powder-based systems.
Binder jet printers produce lower-quality parts but enable a wider range of materials
Binder jet systems deposit a uniform layer of powder and selectively add a binder. Subsequent debinding and sintering steps convert the result to a solid metal part, with properties comparable to cast or metal injection-molded parts. The result is lower mechanical performance than that of PBF, DED, or wire printers. However, it is relatively easier to adapt the process to work with a wider range of metals.
A growing range of large companies are developing printable materials
As the number of printer developers grows, and more corporations use 3D printing to produce end parts, there is a rising demand for multiple suppliers of material and a wider range of alloy grades. In addition, some more recent printer companies, such as HP, are welcoming a more open materials supply landscape. The list prices for retail quantities of typical powders have not decreased significantly, but competition is growing in this space.
Software remains a bottleneck to wide adoption but is receiving extensive investment and interest
In terms of venture investment in recent years, software is the largest area of innovation for 3D printing generally. Much of that software is not specific to metal printing, but leading design software and control software companies like Siemens, Ansys, and Autodesk continue to look for ways to make metal printing, and design of high-quality parts, easier and more reliable.
Service bureaus remain a critical piece of the 3D printing landscape generally, but only a select few are developing unique technology for metal printing.
The most advanced service bureaus, such as GE, Shapeways, and Prodways, as well as specialized service providers like Thyssenkrupp, differentiate themselves among what is mostly a large space of companies using off-the-shelf technology.
The "Other" category spans a wide range of niche processes as well as earlier-stage emerging technologies
This includes companies printing unusual alloys, developing specialized processes for very specific applications, and many academic groups trying out novel approaches. Most of these will not significantly affect the space overall, but some may be transformative on 10+ year timescales.
Aerospace & defense are the largest and most mature applications
Due to their unique needs, including small volumes of highly complex parts made with expensive materials, these areas have long been a natural fit for 3D printing. Many of the most widely available printable metal powder grades today were developed for the needs of these applications, and they remain a dominant presence in the innovation landscape.
Medical and dental applications are a natural fit for custom parts, but fewer players are represented in technology development
As a market, orthopedic, dental, and other medical device applications benefit from 3D printing's capability to produce custom parts efficiently. However, for regulatory reasons, there are only a small number of companies making end parts that are directly represented in the technology landscape. Others are using purchased technology developed by printer and material companies, however.
Only a minority of automotive OEMs are developing 3D printing part production capabilities today
While 3D printing has many use cases in the automotive sector, metal 3D printing of end parts is decidedly less mature due to the difficulty of finding applications where printing can handle the necessary volumes at an acceptable cost. However, in trucks, heavy equipment, out-of-production parts, and other use cases, this is beginning to change.
Oil and gas is a high-potential space for service providers
Companies like GE Oil & Gas, Halliburton, NOV, and smaller companies worldwide have developed significant in-house 3D printing capabilities to enable them to create higher-performing parts for many oil and gas needs. These include valves, end burners, nozzles, and other parts.
Diversified industrials include a long tail of applications
There are potential applications for 3D printing in most industries, for both end part production and supporting conventional manufacturing. Numerous large companies have developed some technology in-house to adapt available printers and materials to suit their unique needs, in applications from appliances to construction to consumer packaged goods.
Overall, the metal 3D printing landscape reflects the ongoing evolution of the industry, with core segments like aerospace and medical having reached maturity and growing rapidly, and a broad frontier likely to begin to grow over the next several years and decades. Expect existing players, especially corporations in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, to continue to dominate in these industries due to their existing competence and ability to sustain incremental improvements, combined with regulatory pressure to limit fundamental changes to parts, processes, and materials. However, new innovations from research labs and startups, especially in China and throughout APAC, will begin to drive the spread of metal 3D printing into new industries and applications. Despite decades of sustained growth, metal 3D printing still has orders of magnitude of headroom for future growth with current and foreseeable technologies.
Those interested should see metal 3D printing as a rapidly maturing technology for small-scale production in established markets being slowly ported to a wider range of applications. A growing field of engineers and designers skilled in using 3D printing, and of software tools making printing easier and more reliable, is going to continue enabling this technology to expand into new markets. For more information download the executive summary of our report, “Will 3D Printing Replace Conventional Manufacturing?”