Additive manufacturing is both growing and coping with growing pains

“Companies have to find ways to streamline polishing and other finishing processes of 3D printed parts. Such processes need more automation to improve the business case for additive manufacturing,” said industry consultant Terry Wohlers recently.

“The role of hybrid machines also needs to be sorted out. Such machines combine 3D printing and traditional cutting processes. Hybrid machines make sense for repairing parts but a lot of problems need to be solved, including software, before they can produce new parts in bulk,” said Wohlers.

“The additive landscape is being altered as large companies become involved. Major corporations are getting into this in a way we have not seen in the past. A lot of companies are trying to get their head wrapped around additive manufacturing. One of the biggest is General Electric Co.”

GE last year announced the acquisitions of Concept Laser (Lichtenfels, Germany) and Arcam AB (Mölndal, Sweden).

GE controls Concept after agreeing in October 2016 to buy an initial 75% stake in the German company, with plans to acquire the rest over an undisclosed number of years. The Boston company turned to Concept Laser after a previously announced deal with SLM Solutions fell through.

“This company is all in when it comes to additive manufacturing,” Wohlers said.

The company became involved with additive manufacturing when it developed a 3D-printed fuel nozzle for aircraft engines. Since then it has developed its Advanced Turboprop engine, which reduces the number of parts from 855 to 12. GE has also targeted selling 10 000 3D printing machines in 10 years.

The additive industry is emphasising industrial applications, including more use of printing metal. Despite a resultant surge in such printing, metal still only accounts for 14% of material sales, with polymers at 85%, Wohlers said.

The consultant estimates the additive industry totaled $6.1 billion in 2016, or 0.05% of global manufacturing. His firm, Wohlers Associates, forecasts it will reach $26.2 billion in 2022. Eventually, it may reach $650 billion, or 5% of global manufacturing, he said.