Possibilities of 3D Printing

Posted on Apr 05, 2015 by Cullen Hikene

There is no shortage of buzz these days about 3D Printing. A Netflix documentary about 3D Printing was a much-hyped fall release, home 3D printers were promoted as one of the big gifts of the holiday season, and rarely a day goes by without someone in the business community talking about the myth or reality of 3D printing’s future. Amidst all the chatter, and despite an increasingly high degree of awareness across the country and world, a true understanding of the 3D printing market – where it is, where it’s going, and what’s going to get it there – remains an elusive bird. This document sets out to provide a baseline understanding of 3D Printing: its history, the different 3D Printing technologies and how they work, practical applications of the technology, and the current state of the 3D printing market.

History of 3D Printing


3D Printing is, surprisingly to some, a fairly old and established technology. The first 3D Printer, a Stereo Lithography Apparatus (SLA), was invented by Charles Hull in 1984. He went on to found 3D Systems, the first 3D Printer manufacturer. Fast forward 30 years, and the industry is just now reaching an inflection point for explosive growth. In the last decade, various industrial grade printer manufacturers have emerged with new technologies, creating competition in the printing of high grade plastics and metals. Further, with the expiration of original Stratasys and 3D Systems patents, hundreds of new consumer printers have now entered the market, capturing the imagination of the masses.

In conjunction with this increase in competition has been an increase in quality. While 3D Printing designs were previously the stuff of artistic models or non-functional prototypes, the arrival of new materials – particularly heavy duty polymers and metals – as well as enhanced printer accuracy and speed have allowed for functioning prototypes and end-use parts to be created in a 3D printer. The ability to produce functional parts is huge for 3D Printing as it opens market opportunities with much heavier industry. To be clear, 3D Printing still has limitations to address (e.g., limited availability of materials, as-printed finish quality), and while those are being worked out CNC machining[1] will sometimes be the more effective rapid manufacturing solution. We suspect that traditional subtractive manufacturing will remain the better choice for most mass produced jobs – particularly simple parts – because it is faster and cheaper with large quantities. Nevertheless, the potential is enormous and there are many companies who have realized where the technology is going and have embraced it whole heartedly.

Looking Forward

The combination of these factors – combined with a sense the cost of printing must come down – has led to the prevailing sentiment that 3D Printing is at an inflection point for rapid to explosive growth. Wohler’s and Associates, the pre-eminent consulting firm for the 3D Printing Industry, projects market growth from $3B in 2013 to $21B by 2020 – a CAGR of 31%. Investment banks like Morgan Stanley[2] and Credit Suisse[3] generally support that growth estimate.  These projections speak to a bright immediate future, but many investors in the space are thinking long term when placing their bets. The global manufacturing industry is $10.5T in size, and many believe 3D Printing is destined to displace at least 10% of that market share. Beyond displacement of traditional manufacturing, 3D Printing also stands to create new opportunities not currently addressed by traditional manufacturing operations. Custom printing of medicine, human tissue, housing, and food are all currently in varying stages of research and development.

The Technology

The market is at an inflection point, the near term growth projections are aggressive, and the potential market opportunity is enormous. But how does 3D Printing technology actually work? Here’s a quick summary of Computer Aided Design (CAD), the computer programming that provides the foundation for 3D Printing, as well as an overview of some of the most prominent 3D printing technologies today.

Computer Aided Design (CAD)

Providing the foundation for not only 3D Printing but also its rapid manufacturing brother CNC Machining is Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology. CAD is, for most intents and purposes, digital 3D blueprinting. Using this computer software, engineers are able to create designs which can then be fed into 3D Printers or CNC Machining devices. Using the designs, the machines then process the data based on the accuracy parameters provided by the machine’s technician to develop an approach to manufacturing the design. This creates incredible efficiencies…please have a look at the video behind this link, where Spacex and Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks to the power of CAD design and 3D Printing in product development:

Primary 3D Printing Types

All 3D Printers are similar in one key respect – they all process CAD files to build a part additively, layer-by-layer, until the desired shape is created. Beyond that, differences abound. The exact process by which those layers are built, the materials available, and the physical equipment used to build those layers all vary significantly. With those differences in turn come significant variances in speed, cost, and quality. Figure 1 presents some of the most common 3D printing technologies, a brief description of each, and video links where you can see the respective technologies in action.

Figure 1. Different Types of 3D Printing

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3D Printing Applications

As noted previously, the key benefits of 3D printing are twofold: the ability to rapidly manufacture small quantities and the elimination of design constraints inherent to traditional subtractive manufacturing. This leads to a number of key applications throughout the product lifecycle.

Rapid Prototyping

Because 3D printing allows for such rapid iteration within CAD programming, without the need for significant setup time between production runs, that it is an ideal tool for rapid prototyping. In fact, the term “Rapid Manufacturing” has been used synonymously with “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” over the past several years because of its unique suitability to this role.

Manufacture of Extremely Complex or Organically Shaped Parts

The elimination of design constraints and the arrival of production grade plastic and metal feedstock for 3D printers has allowed companies to consider creation of parts that would otherwise be impractical or outright impossible to manufacture with traditional subtractive manufacturing processes (e.g., lathing, milling). Most commonly, the parts chosen for mass 3D printing manufacture are either innovative new designs (e.g., patient-customized prosthetics) or to combine multiple subassemblies into singular parts to eliminate complexity and failure risk (e.g., NASA’s reduction of sub-assemblies in its rocket fuel injector from 163 to 2).[4]

Manufacture of Lighter Parts

3D Printing’s ability to lay down very specific patterns allows for what is commonly known as “honeycombing” of walls in manufactured parts. Like a truss bridge that is as strong yet lighter (due to its triangle-based support system throughout its sides[5] or the bee honeycomb from which it gets its name than a solid object) 3D printers can build parts with largely hollow walls that maintain a comparable material strength to parts that previously had to have solid walls via subtractive manufacturing processes. This has made the process especially attractive to industries where being light is key, such as aerospace and automotive.

Manufacture of Legacy Spare Parts

In industries such as aerospace, automotive, and industrial products, the productive life of a part is often measured in decades rather than months or years. Yet many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) do not offer a warranty or reasonably priced replacement spares for older parts. Customers are often left hunting far and wide for aftermarket solutions while their machine sits idle. For those OEMs that offer long-term or lifetime warranties, the cost of manufacturing legacy parts is impractically high – either produce a small batch at a quantity well below scale or suffer the cost of carrying excess inventory for these seldom ordered parts. In both scenarios, high costs are understandably passed along to customers as high prices.

Production grade 3D printing will increasingly eliminate this dilemma. So long as there is a CAD file for the part, the spare can be manufactured on demand, to specification, and provided to the customer at a far lower unit price than possible before. This 3D printing application will become prominent in coming years, as regulators (e.g., FAA) become increasingly comfortable with 3D printed end use parts.

State of the Market

With the arrival of production grade 3D printing and all of its game changing applications, the question is naturally raised “Why haven’t I heard about all this yet?” That question begs a quick state of the market assessment as we close the chapter on this white paper, and prepare to open a new chapter in discussing how 3Diligent will play a role in helping accelerate the adoption of this technology.

The Market

According to a Wohler’s and Associates estimate, the global 3D Printing Market was $3.1B at the end of 2013. Of this, roughly two-thirds of industry revenues came from the United States. Industry revenues are split between 3D Printer sales, 3D Printer feedstock sales, printer-related service, and on-demand part manufacture, with on-demand part manufacture representing about 30%.[6] Most of these revenues are and will continue to be booked within the business sector – Goldman Sachs projects that only 2.5% of the market will be consumer spending. [7] Industries such as aerospace (e.g., Boeing, Airbus, NASA), life sciences (e.g., dental), automotive (e.g., Formula One Racing), and consumer/industrial products will drive long term growth.

The market’s growth to date has been hindered by two key issues – limited applications and cost. However, as noted earlier, the first of those items has increasingly been addressed by new production-grade materials and more reliable print quality, and the second is partially being addressed by the arrival of new competitors. Prevailing sentiment is that the applications outlined earlier will increasingly be adopted and that costs will continue to come down, resulting in a market explosion to $21B by 2020.

The questions that remain are “How will companies become more aware of these applications?” and “What will push the cost down to a level of broad market adoption?” That is where 3Diligent comes in. In our next white paper, we will outline the important role a B2B marketplace can play in promoting broader market awareness of 3D Printing’s technological capabilities, but more importantly how our unique approach to fostering competition and utilizing the industry’s excess capacity can drive down costs and promote quality to accelerate mass market adoption.



[1] CNC Machining also uses CAD data, but rather than use that data to build up a part additively, it uses that data to calculate very exact pathways for machine tools (lathes, mills, etc.) housed within a single apparatus that then gradually remove scrap material until the desired end use part is achieved. Of note, CNC Machining is a service also offered through the 3Diligent platform, as we anticipate a transitory period of many years where certain jobs are better suited for CNC Machining than 3D Printing. This video link offers some useful visuals:

[2] Forbes. “HP’s 3D Print Breakthrough Could Push Rivals out of Business.” 29 October 2014.





[7] Goldman Sachs. “Americas: Capital Goods.” 14 April 2014.

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