Industrial-grade application becomes the new growth point of 3-D printing

3-D printing continues to expand the number of industrial applications, especially for automobile, mold development, and medical device industries, according to Control Engineering China. Innovation, standards, investments, and interest are building for industrial 3-D printing.

By Aileen Jin February 11, 2017

Three years ago, 3-D printing renowned as "the manufacturing technology with the significance of industrial revolution" became a hot topic in China’s manufacturing industry. Now, although 3-D printing isn’t in "the home of ordinary people" as expected, and it is far from the dream of "have everything printed", there are more practical applications for 3D printing in the manufacturing industry, rather than the lofty ones for consumption and entertainment that had been predicted.

At the fourth "3D Printing Asia" event, some local 3D printing enterprises plan to demonstrate the trend that strategic focus is converted from consumer grade to industrial grade. Walnut, a 3-D printer priced RMB 1.2 million (about $174,000), was expected to be the focus of the expo, with multiple mould enterprises from the Pearl River Delta showing strong interest. Walnut is reportedly the first selective laser melting (SLM) industrial metal 3-D printer from Zhuhai CTC Electronic Co. Ltd., released in late 2016. As of December, orders for 20 more had been received.

Wider adoption

More enterprises are considering adopting industrial-grade 3-D printing equipment. This seems to be an emerging trend in Guangdong Province where the manufacturing industry was started. Liu Bin, the secretary general of the Guangdong Die & Mould Industry Association, and professor of South China University of Technology, said with the maturity of technology and the completion of relevant supporting facilities, industrial-grade 3-D printers are beginning to see wide use in such fields as automobile, mould development, medical devices, and other areas.

3-D printers help mold manufacturers to reduce production cost and can greatly shorten the cycle of product research, development and production. This also is one of the reasons why the acceptance level of enterprises toward 3-D printers is growing. Previously, it may have taken more than 10 days to make a set of molds, and with 3-D printing it can take about 10 hours, greatly improving production efficiencies.

Bin said 3-D printers are more widely used in the Dongguan mold industry. If large-scale application of 3-D printing equipment is next, it will totally change production. 

Higher industrial 3-D profits

Conversion from consumer grade to industrial grade 3-D printing extends beyond China’s market. At the beginning of this year, U.S.-based 3D Systems announced its withdrawal from the "consumer grade" market, and will turn to the professional-grade and industrial-grade 3-D printing market in search of a higher profit ratio. According to analysts, in spite of rapid development in the 3-D printing market in recent years, the growth mainly focused on the consumer-grade market. At present, the industrial-grade market is still emerging.

According to the latest report made by the market consulting company Gartner, the shipment volume of 3-D printers globally in 2016 was expected to increase 108%, reaching 455,772 units. Meanwhile, the shipment volume of professional-grade 3D printers was expected to grow 44%. Industrial-grade and metal 3D printing are expected to become the growth point of the entire industry in the future. 

Additive manufacturing investments

Some industry investments in the additive manufacturing field also have created expectations toward the market prospects of future industrial-grade applications. For example, Siemens announced early in 2016 that a metal 3-D printing plant will be set up in Sweden, it’s first formal march into 3-D industrial production. In August, Siemens acquired 85% equity of the British 3-D printing industrial component manufacturer Materials Solutions, which has improved its standing in the metal 3-D printing field.

GE, which already had a presence in the 3-D printing field, also accelerated investment in metal 3D printing in 2016. It acquired two heavyweight metal 3D printing enterprises including SLM Solutions in Germany and Arcam in Sweden for $1.4 billion.

In addition, GE recently announced the formation of a new 3-D printing company named Fuse, with the idea of collecting knowledge and technology from experts globally and creating new solutions using a model similar to crowd-sourcing. GE anticipates a 50% reduction in time from creative idea to final product as a result of the new company’s model. 

Standards development

Lack of uniform standards also may be slowing applications of industrial-grade 3D printing technology. ISO and ASTM reportedly are jointly formulating the Standard Development System of 3D Printing, which will provide a comprehensive technical standard framework for 3-D printing enterprises and institutions, offer guidance for industrial experts and standard development institutions, help them find the gaps in relevant industries of 3-D printing, and strengthen the usability of 3-D printing technology.

Aileen Jin is editor-in-chief of Control Engineering China; Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key concepts

Significant time savings result, reducing some manufacturing from 10 days to 10 hours.

Additive manufacturing is growing rapidly in automotive, mold-making, medical and other industries.

Industrial 3-D printing investments continue in China, Europe and U.S.

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Author Bio: Aileen Jin is editor-in-chief of Control Engineering China.