3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing,” is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file, one layer of material (usually plastic) at a time. Pretty much anything can be 3D printed, from spare parts for aircraft to musical instruments, weapons, apparel, organs, and potentially, other 3D printers, too.
Most 3D printing is currently used in manufacturing to do cheap rapid prototyping and test products—PwC estimates that 67% of manufacturers are already using the technology. More and more companies are now starting to plan how they will adapt to the technology, considered by some as the trigger to a third industrial revolution.
Home 3D printers
Falling prices—Siemens predicts the technology to be 50% cheaper in the next 5 years—suggest sales for consumer 3D printers could boom soon, though. In fact, anyone can buy a home 3D printer for around $200 today. If you don’t want to buy a printer, pay-per-use and on-demand 3D printing services already exist, and you can pay with bitcoin.
The success of last week’s 3D Print Week NY, with 12,000 people pre-registered, shows the technology continues to gain momentum.
How big is the market?
Independent analyst company Canalys estimated in a report in early April that total sales in the 3D printing industry should grow 56% this year, going from $3.3 billion in 2013 to $5.2 billion in 2014. According to the research company, 133,333 3D printers were shipped worldwide last year, an increase of 68% compared to 2013. A report by Allied Market Research forecasted that the 3D printing market in emerging economies would reach $4.5 billion by 2020
3D for Development
A very exciting use of 3D printing is international development. Especially for landlocked countries, where importing products is extremely expensive, communal 3D printing could offer affordable manufacturing—in particular now that a solar-powered 3D printer has been invented. Similarly, the technology could be very helpful in case of emergencies and natural disasters, when air travel is unreliable.
Solutions like prosthetic limbs, plastic banks and tools for farming like a post-harvest storage solution are some examples of what 3D printing offers in the developing world. Perhaps the most meaningful changes will occur in the healthcare field, a major challenge in impoverished areas. In Haiti, cheap umbilical cords can reportedly be printed in less than 10 minutes.
As the technology gets more affordable and easier to use, we can expect bones, organs, drugs and hopefully nutritious food to be available to people in need.
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