The AM global market grew by about 35% in 2013 to reach more than USD 3 billion, the highest annual growth rate in 17 years, according to Wohlers Associates, a 3D printing consulting company based in Colorado, US. The market is currently dominated by a handful of companies that own the core technologies.
The US currently has a 38% market share of the total worldwide AM industry, followed by Japan with 9,7%, Germany (9,4%), China (8,7%), the United Kingdom (4,2%), Italy (3,8%), France (3,2%) and South Korea (2,3%).
US based consultants Allied Market Research forecast in mid-2014 that the overall global 3D printing market could reach USD 8,6 billion by 2020, registering a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 20,6% from 2014 to 2020. Although products made for the consumer market will dominate demand, metals and alloys are projected to be the fastest growing materials segment, forecast to grow at a CAGR of 40,5% during 2014-2020.
Wohlers reported growth of almost 76% in the metal 3D printing sector in 2013, based on the number of metal-based AM machines sold worldwide.
Hi-tech sectors to drive high-end 3D printing systems
Aerospace, along with healthcare, is one of the sectors leading the adoption of 3D printing processes, starting with non-critical parts because of stringent safety testing rules. In 2012, the aerospace and defence industry accounted for about 10,2% of additive manufacturing's total global revenues of USD 2,2 billion.
A growing number of leading manufacturers of airframes, engines and components, among them Boeing, GE (General Electric) Aviation, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and BAE Systems, are now using AM to produce complex aircraft and spacecraft parts not only from plastic but also metal. GE, which is already the world's largest user of 3D printing technologies in metals, expects to have manufactured 100 000 cobalt chrome fuel nozzles for jet engines using 3D printing by 2020.
The US, the largest aerospace manufacturer in the world, is also at the forefront of AM technology, with the UK not far behind. Investment is being driven by big corporations as well as governments. In July 2014, GE Aviation announced plans to invest USD 50 million in its own AM plant in Alabama. In January 2013, US jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney announced that it would invest USD 9 million over 5 years in developing powder-based AM technologies to further refine electron beam melting and "laser powder bed" AM. The UK government has allocated GBP 49 million (USD 81 million) to fund research on 3D printed aerospace technology.
Saving time and materials
The most successful AM processes currently being used to make metal products of various shapes include direct metal laser sintering, developed by the German company Eos, and the Swedish firm Arcam's electron beam melting process. Both are powder based processes that make components from metal powders by building up layers of titanium or other raw materials using computer-driven machines.
The advantages for aerospace firms include time savings, reduced waste and design flexibility.
Using computer-generated design models, AM uses lower quantities of raw materials than do subtractive production methods, produces negligible levels of waste and allows precision engineered replacement parts to be printed in situ in a matter of hours. This gives it the potential to replace traditional forging, casting and machining processes.
Ensuring safety and quality
Ensuring safety and product quality are critical considerations when using 3D printing to produce components for aircraft and spacecraft. It is vital that parts in aircraft engines and bodies can resist corrosion and vibration and are free from defects that could leave them prone to mechanical or heat induced stress.
Selective laser melting technology, for instance, produces parts that can contain microscopic voids within the structure of the material and are prone to heat-induced stress, so these components cannot be used in critical load-bearing applications. Electron beam technology, however, is a higher quality alternative to laser melting and able to produce components free from residual stress.
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Product quality and cost are also major considerations. So far, 3D printing has been used primarily for manufacturing prototypes and demonstration specimens, but that is changing, as GE's commitment to the large-scale production of fuel nozzles demonstrates.
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