Analyst firm Gartner is predicting 3D printer shipments will grow by 100 percent every year until 2018, with the increase driven by falling costs and enterprises integrating the devices into their manufacturing processes.
The hype around 3D printing is being borne out by rising shipments, which are forecast to almost double from last year's 56,000 units to to 108,151 in 2014. Afterwards, Gartner expects shipments to double again over the course of 2015 to 217,350 units by which time the combined value of shipments to individuals and businesses will have reached $1.6bn.
According to Gartner, shipments across both consumer and enterprise segment will continue to double until 2018 when 2.3 million 3D printing units will be shipped with a value of $13.4bn.
"Unit shipment growth rates for 3D printers, which languished in the low single and double digits per year throughout the 30 years since the first 3D printers were invented, are poised to increase dramatically beginning in 2015. As radical as the forecast numbers may seem, bear in mind that even the 2.3 million shipments that we forecast will be sold in 2018 are a small fraction of the total potential market of consumers, businesses and government organisations worldwide," Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner, said in a statement.
Gartner's estimate is close to a recent forecast by fellow analysts at Canalys, which estimated the 3D printing market to be worth $16.2bn in 2018, with $5bn spent on the printers themselves and $10.8bn in services and materials.
While retailer Staples has already begun selling 3D Systems' Cube 3D, one big question over the market is when will HP point its printing business at the growing 3D market, following CEO Meg Whitman's jibe at existing 3D printing projects earlier this year with promises the company would fix up the industry issues. HP said it plans to focus on the enterprise market for 3D printing, which already dominates the overall market by revenue.
According to Gartner, the 3D printing market is emerging in two distinct streams, with consumers being driven mainly by lower prices, improved performance and expanded global availability. Meanwhile, 3D printing in the enterprise is being shaped by the need for prototyping and manufacturing as well as lower 3D printer costs, improved quality and a wider range of materials.
Gartner notes that of seven technologies that make up the 3D market, material extrusion is the key to its growth, with overall end-user spending on the segment set to increase from $789m in 2015 to around $6.9bn in 2018. Material extrusion tech dominates the low price bands below $2,500 per unit. Units costing less than $1000 made up 11.6 percent of sales in 2014, but are expected to grow to 28 percent by of the sub-$2,500 market by 2018.
"The high material extrusion shipment growth numbers are basically driving the 3D printer forecast," said Basiliere. "New providers are entering the market, sometimes directly, sometimes through crowdfunding campaigns, on what seems like a daily basis. These providers are leveraging the expiration of early extrusion technology patents to make low-cost, low-priced devices targeted mainly at consumers."
Including a wider set of technologies, such as vat photopolymerisation and material jetting, end-user spending is forecast to increase $1.6bn in 2015 to $13.4bn in 2018.
As 3D printing goes mainstream, Gartner expects to see more products designed to be 'plug and print' and with that the emergence of more locked-in materials akin to the 2D print market. The analyst firm expects 10 percent of the sub-$1,000 3D printers to have have plug-and-print capability by 2016.
It will also spell an intrusion of lock-in business models on what has to now been an open-source approach to the market.
"While the early adopters will rage at the perversion of the 3D printer open-source ethos, the vast majority of mainstream consumers will demand the simple and consistent operation that 'plug and print' can provide them," said Basiliere.