I recently attended EuroMold 2014, the world's largest 3D printing conference, held in Frankfurt, Germany. Here are nine things I learned about the industry.
1. The conversation around 3D printing is maturing, but awareness remains in a bubble.
The conversation among EuroMold attendees appears to be maturing compared to previous years. It's become less about explaining what 3D printing is, and more about how and why 3D printing can be used to benefit an operation. Put another way, 3D printing appears to be more widely accepted as a technology than ever before, but this observation only seems to ring true in certain circles. Outside of 3D printing, prototyping, and manufacturing circles, the underlying consensus is that general awareness of 3D printing is still lacking. Ultimately, driving long-term adoption will depend on first creating greater awareness.
2. Metal 3D printing is an exciting, high-growth area that's still in its infancy.
According to 3D printing insights firm Wohlers Associates, the metal 3D printing industry experienced 75.8% annual growth in 2013, equating to 348 metal 3D printers being sold worldwide. Despite its relatively small size, metal 3D printing was a major focus at EuroMold, because the expectation is that it will grow to represent a larger percentage of the overall 3D printing market as more manufacturing-related applications take hold. After all, General Electric has plans to metal-3D-print more than 45,000 mission-critical jet engine fuel nozzles per year by 2020 -- a feat that is likely to make history as the largest-scale mission-critical 3D printing application ever. Metal 3D printing players seem to be banking on the likelihood that GE will fuel increased adoption across the industry.
3. Academia is also driving 3D printing innovation.
Research and development isn't only coming from 3D printing companies -- it's also coming from academic and government-funded research organizations that want to push the boundaries of the technology. Research organizations often demonstrate a proof of concept at 3D printing conferences as a way to attract collaborators for commercialization or licensees.
At EuroMold, TNO, a research organization based in the Netherlands, showcased a "racetrack" 3D printing platform concept, whereby print beds visit various 3D print-head stations, boosting print speeds by up to 10 times compared to conventional 3D printing methods -- in an extremely similar manner to 3D Systems' own "racetrack" 3D printing concept. For me, TNO's display acted as a great reminder that competitive threats can come from unusual places.
4. HP entering the 3D printing market is both validating and frightening.
From an industry perspective, it's validating that Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) has announced plans to enter the 3D printing space in 2016 with a homegrown inkjet-based technology it's calling Multi Jet Fusion, which it claims is up to 10 times faster than the two leading 3D printing technologies on the market today: material extrusion and selective laser sintering.
At the same time, it's frightening for industry prospects that HP is entering the space, because HP brings decades of inkjet-based experience, has nearly five times as much cash on hand as the industry generated in worldwide revenues last year, and comes armed with an extensive reseller network. Although entrenched 3D printing companies have time to respond to the threat that HP poses by introducing 3D printers that are faster and more versatile before it enters the market, it may prove to be an uphill battle.
5. The use cases for consumer 3D printing are lacking.
Beyond education and children, the use cases for consumer 3D printing applications are lacking, especially after taking into account that a typical consumer-oriented 3D printer can easily cost upward of $1,000 -- not exactly in the "impulse buy" category. There also doesn't appear to be a clear consensus across the industry of what will help drive consumer adoption. I've heard various factors like ease of use, falling prices, and killer applications as ways to help drive consumer adoption to new heights, but how everything comes together in a cohesive way for consumers seems to be a big question mark.
6. Direct 3D printing manufacturing will be a major driver of future industry growth.
A prevailing belief at EuroMold was the idea that 3D-printed parts will increasingly end up in final products and eventually represent a significantly larger market than today's prototyping market. The issue with this belief is that 3D printing was initially built as a rapid prototyping process, and the path that industry takes to expand into direct manufacturing applications won't necessarily be a straight line.
From what I've gathered, it seems likely that certain 3D printing applications will be better suited than others at first for direct manufacturing. For instance, personalized healthcare devices and low-volume aviation components may pioneer direct 3D printing manufacturing applications well before larger-volume 3D printing applications become candidates for direct manufacturing.
7. The 3D printing industry appears ripe for disruption.
As a technology, 3D printing is relatively immature compared to traditional manufacturing, with its biggest limiting factors being speed, running cost, and ease of use. Considering that the industry is expected to grow from generating about $3 billion in worldwide revenues in 2013 to over $21 billion by 2020, there certainly appears to be an attractive opportunity for a new entrant or technology to address these unmet needs. After attending EuroMold and seeing a host of 3D printing companies offering very similar products, I became increasingly convinced that the threat of disruption isn't a matter of if, but when.
8. Pricing pressures aren't pervasive... yet.
Despite the allure of attractive growth rates, expiring patents, and increasing competition, 3D printing average selling prices haven't really had a negative effect on the industry at large. Thus far, the majority of pricing pressures appear to be at the lower end of the spectrum, around the highly competitive consumer segment. Although 3D printer average selling prices are expected to decline further in the coming years, the industry has yet to acknowledge these potentially difficult-to-manage headwinds.
9. New materials are expected to expand the use cases for 3D printing.
Another key focus at EuroMold was the emphasis on new materials that are aimed at expanding applications and functionality of 3D printing to become more competitive against traditional manufacturing processes. I fully expect to see 3D printing companies continuing to develop proprietary materials as a way to remain differentiated in the coming years.
Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Apple, and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, Apple, General Electric Company, and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.