Digital manufacturing technologies, with 3D printing as the forerunner, are changing the way products are designed and manufactured. New examples of industrial applications of 3D printing are revealed almost every week. These come mainly from the big names in the automotive, aerospace, and medical sectors.
However, a quieter revolution is happening online. Manufacturing platforms are changing the way engineers work by giving them access to the latest technologies and making outsourcing easier and faster.
What is “Online” 3D Printing?
Generally speaking, there are two ways you can get something 3D printed today: do it in-house or outsource it to an external service bureau. If you need high-quality parts in different materials and you don’t want to invest substantial resources to purchase and operate a 3D printer, outsourcing to external services is an appealing option.
When outsourcing, again there are two options: use a traditional service bureau, or an online 3D printing service, through a platform like 3D Hubs. Using a traditional service may come with back-and-forth communications with the supplier, especially if the pre-production work is done manually. If you decide to use a traditional service bureau, look into which online tools are available to prevent lag in production.
Online 3D printing services, on the other hand, streamline the ordering process through software, reducing the time to production from days to minutes. In short: the term “online” refers to these highly automated manufacturing platforms, while the term “offline” includes traditional services and in-house 3D printing, where most processes are still done manually.
The Online 3D Printing Market
To estimate the popularity of online 3D printing, let’s first take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
Different analysts estimate the annual revenue of the global 3D printing market reached approximately $9.3 and $11.5 billion in 2018. This includes sales of 3D printing hardware, software, and materials, as well as online, offline, and other 3D printing services.
A good estimate of the current size of online 3D printing lies between 35-45% of the share of all service providers (or approximately $1.3 to $1.6 billion). This figure is based on the survey responses and is a considerable piece of the pie, which is expected to grow in the near future, as more engineers turn to online 3D printing to move faster.
Breakdown of the 3D printing market by sector (adapted from the Wohler’s report 2018).
Breakdown of Global Online 3D Printing Demand
Let’s see now how the demand of online 3D printing is distributed globally.
The following maps give an overview of the global demand based on transactional data from the 3D Hubs platform. They graphically represent the location of customers who collectively ordered more than 750,000 3D-printed parts in 2018.
North America accounts for about half (49.4%) of the global online 3D printing demand, while Europe follows closely at 41%. Asia-Pacific currently has a relatively small market share, but it is on the rise. A review of Google Trends shows that queries related to the topic of 3D printing in a business and industrial setting were as popular in Asia-Pacific as in Europe and the U.S. in 2018.
Breakdown of global online 3D printing.
Let’s focus on the areas with the highest demand. The U.S. alone accounts for 45% of the global online 3D printing, with California being by far the state with the highest demand in 2018. More than 20% of the total U.S. 3D printing parts were shipped to customers based there; this is over 70,000 parts. New York, Texas, and Massachusetts followed.
Breakdown of online 3D printing demand in the U.S.
In Europe, the UK is the most savvy when it comes to 3D printing (above Germany, the Netherlands, and France). UK firms accounted for 18% of the global online 3D printing demand and nearly half (42%) of all online 3D printing in Europe.
Breakdown of online 3D printing demand in Europe.
Interestingly, the top 3D printing states in the U.S. and the top countries in Europe all have one thing in common: a strong entrepreneurial tech scene. To verify if there is indeed a correlation, we have to dig deeper.
Who’s Using Online 3D Printing?
To answer this question we asked 400 professional users working in all the above industries and in companies ranging from less than five to 10,000-plus employees.
SMEs are indeed power-users of online 3D printing services. An overwhelming majority of respondents (more than 75%) who are likely to use online manufacturing services work in companies with less than 100 employees. These engineers are less likely to have in-house, industrial-grade manufacturing capabilities and they are more flexible in adopting new solutions and technologies. Moreover, SMEs usually don’t have a dedicated person who manages their sourcing, so online manufacturing services essentially act as their procurement department.
Another interesting finding is that the engineers using online 3D printing today primarily come from the industrial, electrical, or consumer goods sectors. On the other hand, engineers in the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries are less inclined to use online services. These corporations are more likely to have specific processes in place—legacy systems, lists of certified suppliers, legal requirements—that do not allow them to be as agile, but online manufacturing platforms are adopting to accommodate their needs.
Breakdown of online 3D printing demand by industry.
As for applications of 3D printing, prototyping is still the primary use-case of the technology today. In fact, 3D printing is the first choice for prototyping in more than 91% of all cases.
When it comes to the production of end-use parts, the statistics are not in favor of 3D printing. More than 50% of the respondents mentioned that they would use an online manufacturing service for the production of end-use parts, but only 38% would choose 3D printing for this purpose. They would turn instead to technologies such as injection molding and vacuum casting for plastics, or CNC machining, sheet metal, and casting for metal production.
The Future of Online Manufacturing
It has taken many years for 3D printing to reach its current level of maturity. Only now have 3D printing processes started to compete with traditional manufacturing in terms of material properties and production capabilities.
Reliability is critical for engineering applications. Standardization and certification drive forward industrial adoption. Engineers want to receive the same repeatable, result every time they send something to print.
Of course, 3D printing will never fully replace all kinds of manufacturing. The technology has many limitations that only now are we starting to understand fully. This is why we should see 3D printing as a piece in the greater digital manufacturing puzzle that will work synergistically with other manufacturing technologies. Don’t forget that traditional manufacturing technologies, like CNC machining and injection molding, are also moving to the online realm, enabling engineers to manufacture parts quickly using processes and materials they are already familiar with.
If you are interested in reading the entire trend report, you can visit the 3D Hubs website for more information.