Worldwide shipments of 3D printers to double by end of 2016: Gartner

Gartner forecasts significant growth in the 3D printing market, with 44 percent growth in enterprise shipments alone.

Nearly 456,000 3D printers will be shipped globally by the end of the year, doubling the 219,000 units that were shipped last year, according to IT analyst firm Gartner, with 44 percent of this growth within the enterprise sector alone.

The global 3D printer market is booming, with the number of units shipped in 2020 estimated to reach more than 6.7 million, according to Gartner's forecast.

3D printing was once a niche market, with the technology primarily being used for prototyping.

But over the last decade, more and more uses have come to market, especially in the healthcare and manufacturing industries. For example, last month researchers at Northwestern University developed a new 3D-printable synthetic bone that could help transform major surgery.

"3D-printed personalized medical devices -- hearing aids, dental implants and braces, and prosthetic limbs -- are more common than many people know. So, too, are the uses of 3D printing to produce not only prototypes and finished goods, but also the tools, jigs and fixtures that are then used to make something else," the Gartner report states.

The analyst firm said the growth of 3D printing is driven by private and public sector organisations becoming aware of the threat that 3D printing poses to industries that rely on conventional manufacturing technologies for sales. These organisations also recognise the potential to lose orders for high-value, short-run, and customised products.

The 3D printer market currently constitutes seven technologies, with material extrusion forecast to lead the market due to the low cost of entry-level material extrusion printers.

Stereolithography printer shipments is also expected to grow rapidly as new providers enter the market and the range of printable materials expands. At the moment, materials used in 3D printing include glass, plastics, ceramics, resins, metals, sand, textiles, biomaterials, and food.

"The primary market driver for consumer 3D printers costing under $2,500 is the acquisition of low-cost devices by educational institutions and enterprise engineering, marketing, and creative departments," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner.

"3D printers are being utilised for several applications and subjects by students in secondary and postsecondary schools where the use of 3D printers can prepare students for many career paths, such as engineering, manufacturing, aerospace and robotics."

The primary enterprise 3D printer market drivers are the part quality, material advances, and the devices' ability to make prototypes, tools, fixtures, and finished goods.

Prototyping will remain the primary enterprise use for 3D printers throughout the four-year forecast period. The use of 3D printing to improve manufacturing will grow to 75 percent of enterprises by 2020, according to Gartner.

Nearly 65 percent of manufacturers that expect to use 3D printers will be using them to produce components of the products they sell or service by 2020.

"Aircraft and aerospace manufacturers have been taking this approach for years, using 3D printers to produce low-volume parts and small lots of parts with complex designs," said Basiliere.

"Military organisations, whose equipment often has very long lives, are working with defense contractors to evaluate 3D printing of replacement and modified components on shore and at sea."

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